Hospitals struggle to battle peak flu season amid widespread IV bag shortage

The flu season is straining resources at hospitals nationwide with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting the flu is widespread in 46 states. Some hospitals are setting up emergency tents to handle the high volume of patients while others are dealing with a shortage of IV bags after Hurricane Maria cut power to manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico.

IV bags hold the medicines and fluids administered by IV and now nurses and doctors are being forced to find other ways to care for their patients, reports CBS News' Michelle Miller. 

In the intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, nurse Hannah Owens-Pike uses Gatorade  to combat dehydration. It now takes her four times as long to administer treatment that would normally be delivered intravenously. Hospital staffers are forced to conserve supplies.

"As the nurse, we look at our patients and see if there is any possible way to give a fluid, electrolyte a medication in any way other than an IV fluid," Owens-Pike said.

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Nurse Hannah Owens-Pike administers Gatorade as a means to prevent dehydration.

CBS News

The shortage is widespread. Three thousand miles away near San Diego, Ben Boyer's wife Xenia Trejo is undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor.

"These nurses work so hard," Boyer said. "It worries me that they don't have everything they could possible need at their disposal."

Boyer says they became aware of the shortage after Christmas during one of Xenia's treatments.

"Suddenly, this nurse who looks after several patients has to stand there for half an hour slowly pumping in these pre-meds," he said. "You sort of think this is brutal, this guy should probably be helping other patients."

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico last September, it forced the temporary shutdown of Baxter's manufacturing plants. Baxter makes up more than 43 percent of the United States' IV solution market. The company told CBS News they produce "tens of millions of sterile IV solutions" every year.

Owens-Pike traveled to Puerto Rico to help with Maria's relief effort but was dumbfounded by the storm's impact back home.

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IV bag

CBS News

"Not until this happened did we realize how many things are actually being produced there and how it is significantly affecting the whole country's medical system," Owens-Pike said.

Puerto Rico is a hub for medical pharmaceuticals – the island produces $40 billion in pharmaceuticals for the U.S. per year.

"This is a nationwide problem which is part of what makes it so hard is that we can't borrow from any other hospital," said Dr. Paul Biddinger.

Biddinger is chief of emergency preparedness at Mass General. He worries about the low supply of IV bags during the peak flu season.

"If we had a very severe flu season start to develop in the next weeks and months, that could push us over the edge," he said.

Baxter told CBS News that production has resumed since the restoration of its power grid. The FDA believes the situation will improve in the coming weeks. Still, the company has to deal with a three-month-long backlog.