American Healthcare Workers are Scrambling for PPE. Again.
The coronavirus pandemic is looking a lot like it first did back in March when hospitals were at nearly full capacity, and healthcare workers were short on PPE. It is a frustrating recurrence of a situation all too familiar.
Once again, healthcare workers are encountering a shortage of masks, gowns, face shields and gloves while coronavirus cases climb and hospitals are overwhelmed with patients. Unfortunately, this scenario is not new to the American people.
Nurses are reusing N95 masks for days—or even weeks. Doctors are not reopening offices because of a lack of PPE. State and federal officials say they are working as quickly as possible to fill shortages. Experts worry that the problem is only going to get worse.
“A lot people thought once the alarm was sounded back in March surely the federal government would fix this, but that hasn’t happened,” said Deborah Burger, a California nurse and president of National Nurses United, a union representing registered nurses.
A major issue that has contributed to the lack of PPE is the miscommunication about who is responsible for filling those shortages. Many citizens, experts and states have blamed the Trump administration for insisting that the responsibility to fill orders falls on state and local officials. The Trump administration insists its only role is to support states and local communities in their efforts from a distance.
The disagreement over who should address the PPE shortage is not the only contributing factor. As mentioned, cases are surging, hospitals are overwhelmed, and testing is lagging and not always accessible. Plus, the general public has received contradictory public health messages, causing many to not wear masks, social distance or take the virus as more than “a flu.”
While headlines about a lack of PPE for healthcare workers is an alarming reminder of earlier this spring, healthcare works have been calling for more PPE nearly the entire pandemic. By reusing PPE (or wearing not enough PPE) and managing many more patients than normal, healthcare workers are at a very high risk of exposure to the virus.
The Trump administration claims it is not aware of any severe PPE shortages in hospitals, and that stockpiles are adequate. But the administration’s reassurance contrasts with the calls for help from medical associations, governors, nursing homes and members of Congress—all of whom have pleaded for federal help.
But unlike in March and April, the dire need for PPE does not just extend to healthcare workers anymore. Many more industries and communities experiencing outbreaks need PPE too, including primary care offices, nursing homes, prisons and psychiatric and disability facilities. Plus, as demand has increased, so have the prices of PPE items.
A Washington Post article explains that “at a legislative hearing, a hospital association executive detailed how one Maryland hospital that spent $600,000 on PPE last year expects to spend $10 million this year. The struggles have been especially acute for smaller and rural providers that can’t compete with bigger health systems on price and large-scale orders, experts say.”
A Washington Post-Ipsos poll in May found that two-thirds of frontline healthcare workers were still encountering a shortage of PPE—namely face masks that filter airborne particles.
Washington state’s governor, Jay Inslee (D), said state officials have been scrambling to find domestic and international suppliers. In a letter to the Trump administration last month, he said he has spent $400 million in equipment, but only 10 percent of orders have been filled.
Unfortunately, healthcare workers continue to be a high risk. Nearly 94,000 have gotten the virus, and at least 500 have died, according to the CDC. The total cases in the U.S., as of July 9, is 3,047,671 with 132,056 deaths.
A trending hashtag called #GetUsPPE is circulating to call for more PPE for healthcare workers. Unfortunately, experts and scientists say we have many more months of this pandemic, and the shortage of PPE will continue if cases continue to rise and states cannot work with government leaders to distribute equipment.