The Journal Gazette
 
 
Wednesday, July 08, 2020 1:00 am

Personal protective gear starting to run low again

GEOFF MULVIHILL and CAMILLE FASSETT | Associated Press

The personal protective gear that was in dangerously short supply during the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. is running low again as the virus resumes its rapid spread and the number of hospitalized patients climbs.

A national nursing union is concerned that gear has to be reused. A doctors association warns that physicians' offices are closed because they cannot get masks and other supplies. And Democratic members of Congress are pushing the Trump administration to devise a national strategy to acquire and distribute gear in anticipation of the crisis worsening into the fall.

“We're five months into this and there are still shortages of gowns, hair covers, shoe covers, masks, N95 masks,” said Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, who cited results from a survey of the union's members. “They're being doled out, and we're still being told to reuse them.”

When the crisis first exploded in March and April in hot spots such as New York City, the situation was so desperate that nurses turned plastic garbage bags into protective gowns. The lack of equipment forced states and hospitals to compete against each other, the federal government and other countries in desperate, expensive bidding wars.

In general, supplies of protective gear are more robust now, and many states and major hospital chains say they are in better shape. But medical professionals and some lawmakers have cast doubt on those improvements as shortages begin to reappear.

In other virus-related developments Tuesday:

• Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, said he has tested positive for COVID-19 after months of downplaying the virus' severity. The 65-year-old populist confirmed the test results while speaking to reporters in the capital of Brasilia. Bolsonaro has often appeared in public to shake hands with supporters and mingle with crowds, at times without a mask.

• The Trump administration formally notified the United Nations of its withdrawal from the World Health Organization. The move makes good on President Donald Trump's vow to terminate U.S. participation in the WHO, which he has criticized for its response to the pandemic and accused of bowing to Chinese influence. The pullout will not take effect until next year, meaning it could be rescinded under a new administration or if circumstances change.

Speaking about protective equipment on the call, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday that it's important for gear to be reused and repurposed as a way to stretch the stocks and avoid shortages.

Dr. Aisha Terry said that she has good access to PPE as an associate professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University in Washington, but some non-academic and rural health facilities have much less.

“I think overall, production, distribution and access has improved,” Terry said. “But the fear is that we will become complacent” and allow supplies to dwindle in some places.

The American Medical Association wrote to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress calling for a coordinated national strategy to buy and allocate gear.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, released a memo last week ahead of a congressional committee hearing that raised concerns about looming problems in the supply chain. Her report was based on interviews with unnamed employees at medical supply companies, one of whom warned that raw material for gowns is not available at any price in the amounts needed, leading to an “unsustainable” situation.

Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, who is in charge of coronavirus-related supplies for the White House, told Congress last week that more than one-fourth of the states have less than a 30-day supply.

“It would seem like in less than 30 days, we're going to have a real crisis,” said Rep. Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat.

FEMA, one of the main federal agencies in charge of the coronavirus response, would not break down which states have enough gear to last beyond 30 days and which do not. It referred those questions to individual states. In June, the government started replenishing its once-depleted stockpile with the goal of building up a two-month supply.


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