By: David Geller, CPCU
In the summer of 2019, a story published by Wired estimated that only 5% of the nearly 230 million surgical masks and 30% of approximately 20 million respirators purchased by American health care are manufactured in the United States. In response to this, a virologist quoted by Wired cautioned that:
“We’re going to have the big pandemic, or something close to it, and other countries will stop shipping us masks and health care workers will feel unprotected. Think about the liability: A giant hospital has to choose between staying open and having their workers and patients be unprotected, or closing, when if they stay open every single infection will be blamed on them.”
Unfortunately, these warnings appear to have been all too prescient.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that hospitals throughout the United States are running out of gowns, masks, ventilators, and other equipment that can protect staff and treat novel coronavirus patients (as well as others inflicted with a health issue).
There are reportedly a myriad of issues that are contributing to the shortage. Here are some mentioned in the article:
- “Hospitals cannot buy fresh stock in a market overwhelmed by global demand and as major manufacturing hubs are hobbled by local outbreaks.
- Some equipment suppliers don’t have enough of their own stores to replace used gear
- Adding to the demand…. are testing delays that force hospitals to hold patients awaiting results. Doctors and nurses must wear protective gear while caring for those patients even if the tests eventually find they aren’t infected.”
To put in context how much demand has increased, the WSJ notes that one hospital is currently going through 14,000 respirators a week, a 7X increase from the 2,000 that were typically used prior to the outbreak. AIR Worldwide, a Verisk company, notes that a shortage of ventilators could be very dangerous because lung failure, which ventilators can assist with, “are a major cause of death from this disease.”
In addition to the Pentagon offering to provide 5 million respirator masks, among the steps being taken to compensate for this issue, per the article, are:
- Reusing masks by cleaning with wipes or spraying them with bleach at the end of each day then hanging them up to dry
- Building makeshift masks and face shields with supplies purchased from local arts-and-crafts and hardware stores
According to the WSJ, these homemade face shields must still meet federal workplace requirements, and therefore the masks will be tested in a supplier’s laboratory before they are used in hospitals. An emergency-room doctor in New York City, who has used ski goggles during one shift, referred to the situation as “‘battlefield medicine.”
Of note, this mask shortage may be affecting industries outside healthcare as well. Denver’s ABC station reported that one construction company, as of authoring of the article, had continued to operate despite the fact that there were no protective masks available to provide to construction workers.