Lack of PPE plagued New York at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, and now shortages are happening in the rest of the country as cases soar

By Julie Mazziotta
July 09, 2020 02:10 PM
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When COVID-19 ravaged New York at the start of the pandemic, health care workers were forced repeatedly to reuse masks, gowns and gloves due to a nationwide shortage. Now, more than four months later, as the outbreak has shifted and exploded in Southern states and on the West Coast, hospital workers are again dealing with shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Back in March and April, the U.S. was unprepared for the massive need for PPE as COVID-19 hit the country. The U.S. stockpile of N95 respirator masks — the most effective protection for workers treating COVID-19 patients — was replenished with 36 million masks after the initial stock of 18 million was depleted in the early months, the White House has said. But a national nurses union, a doctors association, members of Congress and health care workers on social media say that's not nearly enough.

“We’re five months into this and there are still shortages of gowns, hair covers, shoe covers, masks, N95 masks,” Deborah Burger, a California nurse and president of National Nurses United, told the Chicago Tribune, based on surveys of union members. “They’re being doled out, and we’re still being told to reuse them.”

“A lot people thought once the alarm was sounded back in March surely the federal government would fix this, but that hasn’t happened,” Burger added to The Washington Post, blaming the Trump administration for putting the burden of finding PPE on state and local governments.

According to a survey of National Nurses United members from June, 87 percent said that they had been forced to reuse their N95 masks while treating COVID-19 patients. And doctors at Memorial City Medical Center in Houston, where hospital intensive care units are nearly at capacity, say that they have been told to reuse their N95 masks for 15 days — when usually they're worn once, The New York Times reported.

The White House disagreed about the assessment of PPE shortages, saying that the U.S. has control of the situation.

“I’m not going to tell you we’re able to meet all demand, but there’s significantly less unfulfilled orders today than in April,” Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, whom President Donald Trump put in charge of COVID-19 supplies, told the Post. “I have not found a hospital system that is in threat of running out. … I don’t have the sense of there being severe shortages.”

The lack of PPE for hospitals has also prevented nursing home staff and health care workers treating non-COVID-19 patients from getting proper equipment. The American Medical Association sent a letter to FEMA last week saying that doctor’s offices that need to treat cancer patients and perform surgeries haven’t been able to reopen without proper PPE.

Nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in New York protest the lack of PPE in April
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“We are hearing significant and growing concern from our member physicians that they cannot secure needed supplies to safely reopen and that they are unsure where to turn for further guidance and assistance."

They also pushed the Trump administration to enact the Defense Production Act, which would require manufacturers to produce masks, gloves and gowns — but Trump has continually resisted.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also wrote to Trump about the lack of PPE, saying that only 10 percent of his $400 million order for equipment has been fulfilled so far. He said that forcing individual states to battle over the national stockpile of equipment is “akin to fighting a war in which each state is responsible for procuring its own weapons and body armor.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 95,000 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19, and at least 500 have died. Those numbers, however, are believed to be undercounts.

With most of the country now requiring that Americans wear face masks in public, which has been scientifically proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, tells PEOPLE that they should be careful about which types of masks they buy. He advises Americans to stick with sewn cloth masks — the thicker the material the better — and leaving even the papery surgical masks to health care workers.

“We don't want people using N95 respirators — I can't say enough times how important that is. They have an inadequate supply of those,” he says. “They are putting their lives on the line every day to care for COVID patients. Surgical masks are still also in short supply. We need to reserve those for health care workers.”

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