Months into the worldwide pandemic, it’s astonishing that there is still a shortage of PPE for health care workers.
As we start the second wave with almost all states seeing a surge of cases, front-line health care workers still don’t have enough PPE to keep them safe from infection, a Washington Post-Ipsos poll recently reported. Nearly two-thirds of workers don’t have enough masks, and 40 percent reported shortages of surgical masks, which are even less protective. (Connecticut alone is waiting on $91 million worth of PPE orders.)
While the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow in the U.S., health care facilities are growing more and more desperate for the tools they need to protect themselves from catching and spreading the virus.
The World Health Organization’s director-general said the chronic, global shortage of personal protective gear “is one of the most urgent threats to our collective ability to save lives” from coronavirus.
Healthcare standards are currently compromised
Before the pandemic, health care protocol clearly defined an N95 mask as single use for a bedside encounter with an infectious patient. After supply chains collapsed in March, hospitals adopted emergency standards issued by the CDC, saying unsoiled N95 masks can be used up to five times to conserve them.
However, because of the lack of supply, many healthcare workers are still now using them for full 12 hour shifts and often multiple days.
In hospitals, health care workers are washing disposable masks, wearing trash bags, and other horrors to treat patients.
A Boston Globe article published on June 21, highlighted the dire situation. “It’s like pulling teeth: There’s still a PPE shortage—and a second wave could send medical workers into crisis mode.”
A nurse at Cambridge Health Alliance says colleagues must wear face masks designed for single use for five shifts before receiving a new one and they were resorting to heating their masks in an oven to kill the virus. In Milton, Massachusetts, doctors wear construction goggles and rain ponchos. In Brighton, Connecticut, clinicians have been forced to reuse dirty gowns.
A town in Massachusetts was sending used masks to a massive machine that used hydrogen peroxide vapor to disinfect them. Those machines are now in 48 states, yet that process has raised concerns the chemicals could be dangerous. Some nurses have reported nausea or headaches.
Three weeks ago, Susan Puckett, a physician assistant at Boulder Medical Center in Colorado was given one N95 mask from her clinic and told to “keep it until it breaks”.
Supply chain problems prevail
Hospitals say supply chains remain unreliable amid unprecedented worldwide demand, with vendors often delivering late or sometimes just a small fraction of the order.
Third-party buyers bought some of the supply that otherwise would sell to health systems and hospitals—and resold it at steep prices, either to the same health-care providers for whom it was originally destined or for non-medical uses. Hospitals are often outbidding each other.
The supply chain for medical equipment is so broken that smaller institutions don’t even stand a chance. “As a small agency, we don’t have the resources to outbid every other provider for equipment, even if we could find any stock,” wrote a member of a volunteer EMS service in New York City.
Pursuing equipment, wild west style
Without a strong federal response, health workers are left to their own devices as they struggle to procure needed supplies. People on the front lines are buying, bidding or begging for their own PPE because they don’t have faith that the hospital system as a whole will be able to supply it for them when they come to work.
One health system recently described efforts to obtain essential protective gear like the Wild West, including a “legal, but unusual”, deal with a Chinese supplier, a covert trip to an industrial warehouse, respiratory masks loaded into trucks labeled as food delivery vehicles, an interaction with federal agents, and the intervention of a congressman to ensure that the shipment arrived at its destination.”
The clamor for personal protective equipment keeps growing. While nearly everyone with a sewing machine is producing homemade masks, face shields—typically made of plastic and often worn as extra protection over masks or when masks are not available—are a tougher manufacturing challenge.
Local heroes step up
The nation’s arsenal of 3D printers has been deployed to construct protective equipment to fight the coronavirus outbreak. Though tech companies like Apple and Blue Origin and universities like Duke are using their 3D printers to produce face shields for medical workers, they can’t keep up with demand.
Grassroots efforts are trying to fill the ongoing desperate need.
While some were price gouging and hoarding protective gear, trying to capitalize on the need to protect workers, others are working day and night to help for free. Teenagers across the nation are doing their part to help local communities.
In March, my son Jack asked why medical workers weren’t getting the protective equipment they needed, and he went to work in our basement printing face shields. After the first hundred were quickly swept up by our local EMS team, word got out and he got requests for hundreds of more. He quickly ramped up, adding more 3D printers and began printing, assembling and distributing face shields to all the local hospitals, EMTs, senior centers, dentists, pediatricians and medical centers. “I operate all printers 24/7 but can’t keep up with the demand,” he commented.
To date he has donated over 2,500 shields to hospitals, emergency medical services and senior centers. And now he’s getting requests from hairdressers, restaurants, dentists and other businesses and professionals who must have PPE to reopen and operate. His four 3D machines are running non-stop.
Highlight of the Week: Using recycled bottles for face shields
A startup in Uganda upcycles plastic bottles into building materials and PPE. From the discarded plastic bottles it collects, Takataka Plastics designs high-value tile products, but is now shifting its focus to produce around 100 recycled plastic face shields for health clinics every day.
Challenge of The Week
Run by a group of medical workers, #GetUsPPE is working to build a national centralized platform to get equipment to providers on the front lines. This nonprofit, grass roots coalition:
- Advocates for more immediate action to ramp up PPE production by manufacturers.
- Leverages its large network to get supplies sent safely and efficiently to local hospitals.
- Helps the maker community validate and share designs that can be assembled locally.
Want to help? Contact your representative: #GetUSPPE makes it easy to do.
Launched in March, #findthemasks is a global team of volunteers working to build a comprehensive database of PPE needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The global PPE needs map is interactive and constantly evolves in response to recipients’ needs. Their mission is to enable individuals, communities, makerspace networks, and large-scale manufacturers to engage and assist by providing frontline healthcare and other essential workers with the personal protective equipment they need.
Join them: They welcome your help with translation, engineering, outreach and social media.
Find out where and how you can help, and take action. Whether it’s making PPE, handing out needed PPE, or donating to one of the groups above or another organization is helping. Let’s keep our medical workers safe!
– Kendall Webb, Executive Director