Lifesaving dye used in hospital scans is in short supply

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The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a severe shortage of another critical product in the U.S.: dye used to perform routine — but potentially lifesaving — patient scans and procedures at hospitals. 

Hospitals report being low on “contrast material,” a fluid that is injected into patients intravenously to make CT scans and MRIs readable. It also allows doctors to identify clots in the heart and brain. 

The shortage stems from COVID-19 factory shutdowns in Shanghai, China, where most of the supply of the ingredient is made.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System recently issued an alert acknowledging the “significant global shortage of intravenous contrast used in imaging procedures like enhanced X-rays, CT scans and MRIs.” As a result, the medical center is “aggressively” rationing the dye, requiring it to delay some elective imaging procedures. 

“We need to make sure we have IV contrast available for the patients in critical need,” said UAB Health System CEO Selwyn M. Vickers.

Reserved for “life-or-death matters”

The hospital said it will reserve its supply of dye for “life-or-death matters” and that disruptions for patients will be “unavoidable” worldwide, given the lack of dye providers outside of China.

Dr. Phil Johnson, chief of radiology at the University of Kansas Health System, said use of the dye is being limited to critically ill patients.

“We had to triage and limit the use of contrast dye to only critically ill patients that had to have contrast dye either to establish a diagnosis, or to guide a lifesaving or a limb-sparing treatment,” he said.

The American Hospital Association (AHA) on Monday called on GE Healthcare, the main supplier of the fluid in the U.S., to provide more information about the current shortage.

American hospitals rely on “a consistent supply” of GE’s contrast fluid, called Omnipaque, to diagnose and treat a wide array of patients, including those with life-threatening conditions, AHA said in its letter. The current shortage is expected to last until at least June 30.



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