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New PPE Shortage as Cases Surge

Trump is refusing to act to protect our healthcare workers

Kris LaGrange's picture
Jul 09, 2020

As cases of COVID-19 spike across the country, essential workers are once again being faced with a shortage of life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE).

Now five months into the pandemic, hospitals are struggling to find important safety items like respirator masks (N-95), gowns, and disposable gloves. These important items are essential for protecting healthcare workers from further infection while working with COVID-19 patients. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that this surge in cases is nationwide, unlike the first surge that mainly hit a few big cities. While during the first surge, states that had relatively few cases could send supplies to New York, now states can no longer afford to give up essential equipment. This also means upwards of 36 states and numerous local governments and hospital chains are attempting to buy the supplies on the open market instead of just a few states.

In Houston, doctors are reporting that they are being told to use their N-95 masks for up to 15 days, even though these masks are supposed to be used only once. National Nurses United (NNU), the nation’s largest nurses union, reports that 87% of their members have been forced to reuse single-use PPE after working on a COVID-19 patient due to the shortage. This is dangerous as it can transmit the virus to new patients as well as staff.

The PPE shortage isn’t only putting medical personnel dealing with COVID-19 cases at risk. Other doctors say that they have been forced to close their medical offices in recent weeks leaving millions without essential care. These are offices for cardiologists, pediatricians, and neurologists who are keeping non-COVID patients out of the hospital by providing preventative care.

“We have kids living with grapefruit-sized abscesses for over three months who can’t eat or drink and there’s nothing we can do for them because we can’t get P.P.E.,”  Kay Kennel, the chief officer of Lubbock Kids Dental, a clinic serving low-income families in Texas that has a list of 50 children awaiting emergency surgery, said in an interview with the NY Times. “It’s been just horrible, and given the growing number of infections here, I’m afraid things are going to get worse.”

Even after the last PPE crisis in March, much of the equipment is still being made in China. This means that hospitals have to wait to get shipments and buy them through often shady middlemen and third-party vendors. The lack of PPE could also be attributed to Trump, who in late May declared that there was a “tremendous supply to almost all places.” This statement likely convinced at least some of the companies that had retrofitted their factories to make PPE to go back to their normal business. Instead, with cases at the time looking like they were on the decline, the country should have used these precious weeks to build up a stockpile of equipment in preparation for the second wave of cases.

The problem may be exacerbated as schools open in just a few weeks. Trump is demanding that states reopen schools to in-person classes, but if that happens it is likely that school staff and parents will rush to buy more masks, especially the N-95’s and gloves. In states that are currently seeing a surge in cases, like Texas and Florida, this would mean even fewer masks and gloves on the market for healthcare workers.

The shortage has prompted some to call on Trump to use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to force companies to begin producing PPE. "I really think we need to look at greater use of the Defense Production Act so that we can make sure that supply keeps up with the demand that we know is going to continue growing,” said Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. Without action, hospitals worry that it is only a matter of time before they once again run out of PPE and start to see their healthcare workers getting sick.

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