By Anita Desikan, Union of Concerned Scientists
First responders and health care workers throughout the US are currently facing extreme shortages of the equipment they need to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus.
The shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, are so dire that health care workers and hospital staff are fashioning masks out of surgical sheets and cut-up paper gowns and pleading with the public to donate whatever they can, using a twitter hashtag (#GetMePPE). The situation is so grim that the CDC has issued guidance on using bandana and scarf masks if nothing else is available, emphasizing that such homemade remedies have “unknown” capabilities to protect medical personnel.
What went so wrong? It was highly predictable that health care workers would need a lot more masks, gloves, surgical gowns, eye gear, and other PPE to safely respond to the crisis, as was reported in an Atlantic article from January 30. The White House, however, has dithered in providing this critical life-saving equipment to medical professionals to a degree that borders on negligence.
Health care workers deserve protection
Doctors and other health care workers will undoubtedly be hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent data suggest that 20 percent of health care workers in Italy have been infected, and doctors in China are dying at higher rates due to COVID-19 than expected for their age. The ability to obtain health-protective PPE can literally be the difference between life and death for a health care worker.
And yet it is clear that the Trump administration is failing to think through or enact evidence-based actions that could help address the dire shortages of PPE. According to current and former administration officials, the Trump administration has yet to even complete a comprehensive assessment of what medical supplies will be needed during the outbreak. As recently as this past weekend, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the White House’s coronavirus task force were unable to provide solid answers to when health care workers will receive the vital equipment or how much of it will be produced.
Meanwhile President Trump has been doling out conflicting messages about the administration’s response to the PPE shortage. On Thursday, he told reporters that the federal government is “not a shipping clerk” for medical supplies and that “governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work.” On Saturday, during a press conference, President Trump claimed without evidence that the federal government will order “hundreds of millions” of face masks and other supplies that will be available for health care workers.
During the same Saturday press conference, President Trump chastised health care professionals for throwing away masks and pushed them to sanitize their masks for reuse, even though there is no reliable ways to sanitize a face mask. And yet the shortages are so severe that some health care workers are being forced to reuse masks until they physically cannot be used anymore.
The federal government is bungling the response in every way imaginable
President Trump announced last week that he would be invoking the Defense Production Act, a law created during the Korean war era that authorizes a president to take extraordinary action and require American industry to ramp up production of critically needed equipment and supplies. Medical professionals were genuinely encouraged to hear this. And yet we learned over the weekend that the Trump administration has taken no steps to carry out this desperately needed action . White House advisor Peter Navarro even went as far as to say: “We’re getting what we need without putting the heavy hand of government down.”
While manufacturers like General Motors, Apple, and Hanes have promised to step up, the companies are reporting wide-spread confusion about how much and what exactly they are supposed to produce. For example, Hanes has said that it will produce a less protective mask, instead of the N95 masks most needed by medical professionals.
N95 masks, which filter out 95 percent of viral particles and create a strong seal along the nose and mouth, are needed to protect health care workers from respiratory illnesses like COVID-19. Considering that recent peer-reviewed evidence suggests the novel coronavirus can remain viable and infectious in an aerosolized form for hours, the need for N95 face masks may be even more crucial for medical personnel.
And even when the Trump administration has been able to supply US states with some of the needed equipment, a few states like Florida are receiving the entirety of their requests while other states like New Jersey, Oregon, and Oklahoma are only receiving six to ten percent of the supplies they need.
Illinois’ governor called it a “wild west” situation where states are desperately competing with one another for medical supplies. Worse yet, New York City and the states of Oklahoma and Florida are receiving shipments from the US government where all the PPE items are expired. Emergency doctors in Los Angeles reported trying on masks that were so old that the elastic band snapped off.
The Trump administration continues to sideline the science
During the coronavirus outbreak, we’ve already documented numerous examples of the Trump administration failing to follow the science, restricting scientists from speaking directly to the public, and concealing scientific information. We’ve even seen the administration fail to provide PPE to US health workers deployed to Wuhan, China in late January and early February.
And in just the last week, we’ve also learned that
- The CDC has not held a press conference since March 9
- The administration eliminated, just months before the outbreak, a key CDC position in China that helped detect and train medical personnel on disease outbreaks
- President Trump repeatedly refused to listen to intelligence officials in late January and early February warning in stark terms about the danger of the epidemic.
We at the Union of Concerned Scientists continue to monitor the situation and have a number of ways that you can act to promote science-based decisionmaking during this crisis.
We must protect our heroes on the front lines
A few days ago, in central Kentucky, an anesthesiologist had to intubate several patients in respiratory distress without a respirator mask or protective eye gear because of the extreme shortage of this vital equipment. “There’s absolutely no way to protect myself,” they said. “Not only can I not protect myself, I can’t protect my patients.”
Many of us have N95 masks lying around the house – they are the same masks used for construction (“dust masks”). If you wish to help, here is a map of mask drop-off sites, here is a site connecting health care workers with those who have masks, and if you are a health care worker, here is a site where your hospital can connect to manufacturers of masks.
Our health care workers are nothing short of heroes. They are choosing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to help others during a pandemic. By failing to provide them with the equipment they need to stay safe and healthy, the Trump administration is endangering their lives.
This is unacceptable and unconscionable. The Trump administration—and the nation—must do everything it can to ramp up production of critical protective equipment for health care workers NOW.