Shanghai, China has entered a sixth week of paralyzing COVID lockdowns— with no end in sight. The ripple effect is being felt across the healthcare system in the U.S. Much-needed intravenous contrast dye, produced at a manufacturing plant in Shanghai, is running out.
Hospitals are now rationing care because of the severe shortage of the IV contrast media.
"IV contrast is fluid that we put into your veins so that it increases the obviousness of abnormalities within the body. Sometimes it's nice to have. Other times, it's essential," said Dr. Jonathan Chung, vice chair for quality in the department of radiology at the University of Chicago Medicine.
Chung added that this shortage is unprecedented.
"A lot of places are somewhere in the two-to-three-week range. I've heard some places as low as one week in terms of the amount of CT IV contrast that they have on hand," said Chung.
A spokesperson for the GE Healthcare plant in Shanghai said they are working on expanding capacity of their products.
"After having to close our Shanghai manufacturing facility for several weeks due to local COVID policies, we have been able to reopen and are working to return to full capacity as soon as local authorities allow," the spokesperson said.
The company has also expanded production at another plant in Ireland and is switching logistics routes from sea to air. The most serious impacts are being felt by hospitals that source their product exclusively from GE.
"If they happen to be using GE as their primary supplier, the effect has been tremendous,” said Dr. Matthew Davenport, vice-chair of the Commission on Quality & Safety at the American College of Radiology. “They effectively have no contrast media or very little contrast media coming into their organization at this point."
Availability varies from hospital to hospital. But some health systems have been forced to temporarily pause scheduling outpatient CT scans that require contrast.
"We're doing that just to make sure that, again, there's enough to go around and we take care of our sickest patients in the best manner possible," said Chung.
Meanwhile, radiologists, cardiologists and emergency rooms that rely on the imaging chemical are adjusting to prevent wastage until supplies can be replenished.
"If we're doing that same exam without contrast material because the supply simply doesn't exist, it may be that we just miss a cancer, or we diagnose a cancer later or were not able to see the extent of the cancer. And these are real potential harms," said Davenport.
Some estimate it could be the end of June or well into the summer before supplies are back to normal.
“Professionals are dealing with it,” said Davenport. “But it's not an understatement to say that it is a crisis and it's a problem."