US sees new shortage of PPEs as COVID-19 infections rise, hospitalisations climb

Published: Jul 10, 2020, 11:55 IST | ANI | Washington D.C.

Doctors say they cannot reopen offices because they lack personal protective equipment

A patient infected with COVID-19 is admitted at the Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa on July 7, 2020. - Global infections from the novel coronavirus have topped 10 million as the rate of new cases surges, particularly in the United States and Latin America. Pic/ AFP
A patient infected with COVID-19 is admitted at the Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa on July 7, 2020. - Global infections from the novel coronavirus have topped 10 million as the rate of new cases surges, particularly in the United States and Latin America. Pic/ AFP

Healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States have once again started facing shortages of masks, gowns, face shields and gloves as the infection spread and the number of patients getting hospitalised continues to climb. According to The Washington Post, the mess of equipment shortages has come at a time when other issues have plagued the country's early response to the pandemic return, including surging cases, overwhelmed hospitals, lagging in testing and contradictory public health messages.

But the inability to secure PPEs is especially frustrating, healthcare workers say, as it acts as their main defence against warding off the coronavirus. Nurses say they are reusing N95 masks for days and even weeks at a time. Doctors say they cannot reopen offices because they lack personal protective equipment. State officials say they have scoured US and international suppliers for PPE and struggle to get orders filled. Experts worry the problem could worsen as coronavirus infections climb, straining medical systems.

"A lot of people thought once the alarm was sounded back in March, surely the federal government would fix this, but that has not happened," said Deborah Burger, a California nurse and president of National Nurses United, a union representing registered nurses. Like many healthcare workers, Burger also blamed the Trump administration for the lack of equipment, noting the administration has insisted the responsibility falls to state and local officials, with the federal government playing only a supporting role.

However, White House officials, in an interview to the Post, were quoted as saying that concerns over PPE shortages are overblown. They said that US manufacturing and stockpiles of protective equipment have improved dramatically and are adequate in most states. Instead, Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, whom President Trump put in charge of coronavirus-related supplies, alleged that the PPEs demand continues to outstrip supply because hospitals, states and the federal government are trying to stockpile supplies.

Demand for protective equipment has soared, but unlike in March, when efforts focused on getting PPE for major hospitals -- especially in New York, Detroit and Chicago -- supplies now are desperately needed by primary care offices, nursing homes, prisons and psychiatric and disability facilities. As many states continue to reopen their economies, demand has also surged from the construction industry and other sectors. With soaring demand, prices have also skyrocketed.

In a letter last week, the American Medical Association told the Federal Emergency Management Agency that doctor's offices outside big systems -- including those providing primary care, chemotherapy and minor surgeries -- have struggled to reopen because they are unable to secure PPE.

The association, which pleaded for transparency and a coordinated national strategy, said it is unclear "whether the central problem is in the availability of raw material, production backlogs, gaps in the distribution systems, or some combination of all three." In a second letter, the medical association urged the White House to invoke the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to increase supplies of N95 masks and gowns.

A Washington Post-Ipsos poll in May found two-thirds of frontline healthcare workers were still experiencing insufficient supplies of face masks that filter out airborne particles.

As the virus has rampaged through the US, it has pummeled the ranks of healthcare workers, infecting at least 94,000 and killing 500, according to an incomplete count by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the true number is believed to be much higher.

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