Perhaps no issue is more pressing for health care workers across the United States as they battle the novel coronavirus than the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) to avoid contamination.
Face masks, including N95 masks that provide more protection than loose-fitting surgical masks, are becoming scarcer, subject to increasing demand and even facing price gouging as local officials seek to bolster their stockpile through the private sector.
“I’ll contract with a company for 1,000 masks,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday in his daily briefing. “They’ll call back 20 minutes later and say, ‘The price just went up,’ because they had a better offer. I understand that. Other states who are desperate for these goods literally offer more money than we were paying. It’s a race that’s raising prices higher and higher.”
This comes as several local officials are pleading for President Donald Trump to enact the Defense Production Act, which would allow the private sector to ramp up the manufacturing of PPE to mitigate the national shortage.
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a strategic reserve of N95 masks from which it has begun to distribute to states that are especially in need. In an interview with ABC News, FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor said the agency was “prepared to go to zero in the stockpile to meet demand.”
Pulling from the stockpile, however, may not be the only option.
In another interview, with NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” Gaynor said local governors should try to purchase the medical supplies to quickly meet the demands of their constituents.
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“What I’ll say is if you can find it on the open market, go buy it,” Gaynor said. “Any governor that needs it, and you find it, go buy it. FEMA will reimburse you under this emergency.”
Gaynor said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the areas most affected by the spread of the virus – New York, California and Washington state – are the focus of FEMA’s efforts.
“If you don’t need it right away, you’re going to be a little bit farther down the list,” Gaynor said.
As of Sunday afternoon, Cuomo indicated that confirmed cases in New York state had topped 15,000, with a death toll of 114, both of which are highest in the United States. Washington state had the second-most confirmed cases with nearly 1,800 and 94 deaths, and California was third with more than 1,500 cases and 28 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University data dashboard.
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The N95 mask shortage is even forcing hospitals to ration them.
In a memo distributed to his colleagues, Dr. Craig R. Smith, the chair of the department of surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian, said the hospital is “consuming 40,000 such masks per day, which is estimated to reach 70,000 per day” at peak levels.
Complicating matters, N95 masks aren’t the only ones in demand.
As medical care workers continue to face exposure and possible contamination, each employee of NewYork-Presbyterian, the Columbia University Irving Medical Center and Weill Cornell Hospital will receive one non-N95 mask “to be used only if the person becomes symptomatic.” Smith also noted in the memo that “employees will be responsible for keeping their one mask clean and available.”
What does that mean? These states are ordering residents to stay home or shelter in place.
Some companies are joining the fight against the mask shortage. The pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. announced it delivered 500,000 masks to New York City Emergency Management on Sunday morning.
Harbor Freight, a tool and equipment retailer, announced it was donating its entire supply of N95 masks, face shields, and five mil and seven mil Nitrile gloves to hospitals in the communities where the company has stores.
At the White House on Saturday, Trump said the clothing company Hanes was “retrofitting manufacturing capabilities in large sections of the plants to produce masks.”
JOANN fabrics launched a program on Saturday that is giving out free pieces of fabric, elastic and other necessary materials to customers so that they can make homemade masks to donate to hospitals. On its website, JOANN even has a video tutorial on the proper techniques to make the masks to ensure they will be accepted by hospitals.
There were calls for crowdsourcing on social media, too. Healthcare workers asked for others to donate any masks, goggles or other equipment using the trending hashtag #GetMePPE. People who had surplus supplies of medical equipment also used the hashtag to help locate those medical workers in need. Many also used the hashtag to tweet at elected officials, including Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
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Though the homemade versions do not meet the N95 designation, the donations can still provide medical workers with some layer of protection.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, “the ‘N95’ designation means that when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small (0.3 micron) test particles.” The FDA did add that even when properly fitted, an N95 mask “does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death.”
Across several states, small businesses and organizations are also joining the push to ease demand by crafting and donating homemade masks to healthcare professionals.
In Arizona, a nonprofit in Flagstaff, Threaded Together, is using surgical fabric recycled by the Flagstaff Medical Center to sew masks. A Gilbert small business, My Little Homemade Shop, started sewing masks and giving them away for free after local healthcare workers reported not being provided masks because they were not considered “at-risk” and after the owner of the shop heard that doctors in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Staff were wearing bandanas instead.