The biggest worry for hospitals, healthcare workers: Protective equipment

A shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) is the biggest issue right now for hospitals and healthcare workers around the country.

While clinical needs surrounding the coronavirus outbreak vary depending on their location in the country, “everyone is saying PPE, PPE, PPE,” said Janis Orlowski, M.D., chief healthcare officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) during a press conference this morning.

AAMC, which represents medical schools and teaching hospitals, updated the media on how teaching hospitals and medical schools are responding to the coronavirus epidemic.

“It’s the number one issue for our healthcare organizations at this time,” said Orlowski, about the worry over a shortage of masks, gloves, and gowns that doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers need to protect themselves from infection from the highly contagious virus.

“Are we worried? Yes, we are,” she said.

In multiple areas of the country, healthcare workers are conserving PPE—for instance, by limiting interactions with patients hospitalized with the virus to only essential workers—and there may come a time when workers are reusing PPE, she said.

Supplies from the national stockpile are being released and distributed to states based on need, she said.

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The AAMC did a rough survey of teaching hospitals. The PPE most in demand include masks, eye shields and gowns, she said. But there are also worries about supplies of gloves, coverings for shoes and hand sanitizer, she said.

There have been discussions about what to do if healthcare workers need to go without some types of PPE, such as whether if there are not enough gowns, workers could dispose of or change clothing once they have finished examining a coronavirus patient, she said.

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The healthcare community has been planning for a respiratory pandemic for years, “trying to imagine this day and this time,” she said.

The country is also facing an “extreme shortage” of the swabs used to test patients for coronavirus, said Ross McKinney, Jr., M.D., the AAMC’s chief scientific officer. That shortage is limiting the ability to test all of the people that clinicians would like to test, he said.

In an effort to conserve PPE, teaching hospitals have taken medical students out of rotation in their facilities, said Alison Whelan, M.D., chief medical education officer at AAMC.

Teaching hospitals have redeployed those medical students in various ways to provide help that doesn’t include direct patient care, from talking via the phone to people who have been quarantined because of coronavirus to even babysitting doctors’ children.

Medical schools located in areas hard-hit by coronavirus may have to rethink how they are using students in the next few days if conditions worsen, she said,

“This exceeds anything any of us has experienced,” she said.

However, the government says help is on the way with efforts to produce more PPE. During a press conference at the White House on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence—who leads the Coronavirus Task Force—said companies are moving to increase the supply of protective masks. For instance, the 3M company has already moved to full capacity producing 35 million new masks a month to meet the demand. Honeywell also committed to producing 120 million masks in the next year, Pence said.

The vice president also pointed to the legislation passed on Wednesday that immediately expanded the supply of masks to hospitals by extending the liability protection and allowing all industrial masks that are manufactured as N-95s to be purchased by hospitals. “They’re in the marketplace now,” Pence said.

Previously, hospitals would have only been able to purchase 5 million of those masks, he said.

“We’re working with governors to make sure that healthcare providers, the hospitals and the clinics in their state are placing orders now that this tremendous increase in supply—particularly in industrial masks—is now available. We’re going to make sure they understand the supply has greatly expanded,” Pence said. “We’re going to continue to put a priority on making sure we’re calling on industry at every level, calling on major suppliers that the president met with this week, to make sure those personal protective equipment are there.”