As coronavirus cases surge, doctors and nurses fear shortage of PPE

Health care workers fear another shortage in personal protective equipment (PPE) as some states see a new surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, and the U.S. government issued new guidance to reuse face masks, gowns and other equipment.

Vice President Mike Pence made the announcement on Wednesday at the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, saying that PPE supplies remain “very strong,” but the Trump administration will be encouraging health care workers “to use some of the best practices” to “preserve and reuse” face masks and other protective equipment.

A nonprofit group called #GetUsPPE was established in March by physicians to help distribute donated protective gear. The group said they have seen a surge in requests in the last two weeks of June for more gear from health facilities that are not hospitals.

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A survey of 632 institutions who have requested PPE equipment shows the majority of them have two weeks or less of N95 respirators, face shields, gloves and gowns remaining.

Thirty-six percent of institutions say they are completely out of face shields, while 20 percent say they are no more gowns remaining, and 22 percent report depleted stashes of N95 respirators.

The group says acute care hospitals make up nearly 17 percent of the neediest institutions, followed by independent clinics and nursing facilities, adding that rural communities and other vulnerable populations are likely under-reported.

In Cincinnati, nurses at a VA medical facility protested the lack of PPE gear which they say puts veterans, patients and members of the public at risk, along with health care workers.

“N95s and other PPE continue to be locked up,” Alles Smith, a nurse at the Cincinnati VA, where at least four nurses have been infected, said in a statement. “Having PPE locked up is an unacceptable practice that nurses aren’t willing to accept! Nurses and health care workers must have access to PPE to safely take care of our veterans.”

The American Medical Association (AMA) pleaded with Pence and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to address the shortages of PPE that have kept physicians’ practices from reopening.

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.
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. (AP)

“As the AMA continues to communicate with physicians during the pandemic, they tell us the biggest challenge to reopening their practices is the ongoing shortages of PPE, especially N95 masks and gowns. Previously, physicians in ambulatory settings have not needed substantial PPE. Consequently, physicians in ambulatory settings do not have existing relationships with vendors or ability to source these critical items,» the AMA’s letter to Pence said.

«Furthermore, physician offices do not need the same quantity of PPE that large institutions do,» the letter continued. «As a result, even when physicians find a vendor with available supply, they end up losing to larger institutions with more bargaining power and placing more substantial orders.»

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., expressed concerns about dwindling PPE reserves in a Congressional memo that was based on interviews with six large medical equipment distribution companies and the Committee on Oversight and Reform.

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«The companies informed Committee staff that they have serious concerns that “raw material for PPE is now in a really bad position worldwide,” Maloney’s memo said. «As one company official stated: “Supply is still coming in, but not enough to meet demand.” The companies cautioned that prices for raw materials have gone up dramatically and that, for example, “raw material for gowns is unavailable at any price, at least in the quantities we need to make gowns.” They warned that continuing to supply PPE under these conditions is “not sustainable.”

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