Mon | Aug 10, 2020

Protective gear for US medical workers running low again

Published:Tuesday | July 7, 2020 | 9:25 AM
FILE - In this July 5, 2020, file photo, healthcare workers help each other with their personal protective equipment at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site outside Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. The PPE that was in dangerously short supply during the initial weeks of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. is running out again as the virus resumes its rapid spread and the number of hospitalised patients climbs. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

The personal protective gear that was in dangerously short supply during the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. is running low again as the virus resumes its rapid spread and the number of hospitalised patients climbs.

A national nursing union is concerned that gear has to be reused. A doctors association warns that physicians’ offices are closed because they cannot get masks and other supplies. And Democratic members of Congress are pushing the Trump administration to devise a national strategy to acquire and distribute gear in anticipation of the crisis worsening into the fall.

“We’re five months into this and there are still shortages of gowns, hair covers, shoe covers, masks, N95 masks,” said Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, who cited results from a survey of the union’s members. “They’re being doled out, and we’re still being told to reuse them.”

When the crisis first exploded in March and April in hot spots such as New York City, the situation was so desperate that nurses turned plastic garbage bags into protective gowns. The lack of equipment forced states and hospitals to compete against each other, the federal government and other countries in desperate, expensive bidding wars.

In general, supplies of protective gear are more robust now, and many states and major hospital chains say they are in better shape. But medical professionals and some lawmakers have cast doubt on those improvements as shortages begin to reappear.

Dr. Aisha Terry, an associate professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University in Washington, said that she has good access to PPE, but some non-academic and rural health facilities have much less.

“I think overall, production, distribution and access has improved,” Terry said. “But the fear is that we will become complacent” and allow supplies to dwindle in some places.

The American Medical Association wrote to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress calling for a coordinated national strategy to buy and allocate gear.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, released a memo last week ahead of a congressional committee hearing that raised concerns about looming problems in the supply chain. Her report was based on interviews with unnamed employees at medical supply companies, one of whom warned that raw material for gowns is not available at any price in the amounts needed, leading to an “unsustainable” situation.

FEMA, which manages the nation’s stockpile, would not break down which states have enough gear to last beyond 30 days and which do not. In June, the government started replenishing its once-depleted stockpile with the goal of building up a two-month supply.

As of June 10, FEMA had distributed or directed private companies to distribute more than 74 million N95 masks and 66 million pairs of gloves, along with other gear. The agency said it changed its distribution method to send more equipment to hot spots.

Although all U.S. states and territories have received some protective gear from FEMA, an Associated Press analysis of the agency’s own data found that the amounts varied widely when measured by population and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

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