In the fight against Covid-19, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves, and gowns is critical to protecting the wellbeing of health care and other front line workers. Nevertheless, from hospitals to fire stations, these items have been in short supply. Nationwide, as social distancing measures continue, local, state, and federal governments cite the necessity of PPE availability as they seek to reopen the economy.
California was the first state to issue a stay-at-home order on March 19. Since then, the vast majority of states have followed suit with some measure of social distance mandates. While experts laud the efforts and indicate that we have seen a large measure of success in flattening the curve, the collateral has come in the form of significant job loss and economic stagnation. As states make plans to reopen their economies and businesses implement hygiene practices required to keep employees and patrons safe, PPE shortage remains a major concern.
States’ Plans for Reopening Dependent on PPE supplies
Several states have planned, or have already begun, multi-phase easing of restrictions. In some cases, governors are making decisions on a county- by-county basis in coordination with local municipalities. These decisions hinge not only on infection rates, but also PPE supplies. In Oregon’s Deschutes County, for example, city officials feel confident that PPE supply level are adequate, though they still need more N95 masks. In Washington, Governor Inslee has extended the stay-at-home order through May 31, while outlining a 4-step plan for reopening. Ten counties with lower infection rates may apply for more rapid opening, provided PPE supplies and medical capacity remain adequate.
New York, meanwhile, is devising a 12-step plan for reopening, but as yet remains unprepared, with too few masks and inadequate testing capacity. States such as Maine and Virginia have also begun to unveil their plans to reopen, with PPE being a central feature. In Maine, residents must wear face coverings, while health care providers that have heretofore been subject to lockdown must be sure to “manage the use of essential resources such as personal protective equipment and testing supplies” as they reopen. Governor Ralph Northam of Virginiaexpressed confidence in his state’s progress as far as PPE supply and testing capacity, but has emphasized the need to maintain this stream of goods in order to successfully and fully reopen.
Even Where Reopening Allowed, Many Businesses Delay Due to PPE Shortage
Even as states make moves to lift restrictions, many business and industries are ill equipped to open their doors. In Georgia, one of the first states to lift its stay-at-home mandate, beauty salon owner Alyson Hoag says that she is not ready to reopen, even though the state has given her the green light. According to Hoag, “We need to be in protective gear. I need time to get the supplies and sterilize the studio.”
Similarly, West Virginia businesses must provide appropriate PPE to employees as a condition of reopening, but many business owners cannot find these supplies due to the nationwide shortage. In Arizona, Green Valley Recreation, which owns and runs several recreation centers, says that PPE equipment required to open for business, which they ordered during the first half of March, still had not arrived as of May 1.
Some dental offices have likewise indicated that they cannot open due to insufficient PPE. The American Dental Association has published a guide for recommended PPE and cautioned dentists to consider the availability of these items before seeing patients again.
Why the PPE Shortage?
Although the federal government maintains a stockpile of items such as respirators and ventilators, that supply has proven insufficient. For example, the stockpile includes 15,000 ventilators, but New York City alone expects to need 16,600. A further problem is the supply chain for obtaining such goods. Much of our needed medical equipment comes from China, and when the pandemic there began to spread, supply chains were disrupted as exports from China came to a halt. As conditions in China have improved, they have shipped items, such as masks, to other countries as part of goodwill packages, of which the United States has not been a recipient.
While some companies stateside, such as Ford Motor Company, have converted their factories to produce these high-need goods, new business like Blueflame Medical have emerged as purveyors of PPE and Covid-19 testing equipment. Other efforts to extend current supplies include decontaminating and reusing items such as masks.
With joblessness, lost wages, and lockdown fatigue on the rise, private citizens as well as state and federal governments understand the urgent need to reopen the economy as soon as possible. Doing so safely, however, is key. In addition to sickening workers, experts warn that moving too quickly without sufficient precautions risks undoing progress made in the fight against Covid-19, further extending the economic and social impact of this deadly pandemic. They say that increasing the availability of PPE is crucial to a safe and lasting reopening.