After many weeks of bleak news related to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s been heartening to see stories of volunteers working to make and collect protective equipment for healthcare workers. In Louisiana, Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas said the hospital system had been working with a local distillery to produce hand sanitizer and had developed a prototype that is now being used to manufacture face shields.
Hospitals in other states have taken similar measures, with medical students putting together 50,000 kits with face shields, surgical masks and hand sanitizer for Johns Hopkins clinicians.
But even with these efforts, hospitals still need many, many more masks, as local governments struggle to purchase needed protective equipment.
“We get some from the state in the past few days which is helpful,” Thomas said in a press briefing on Thursday. “We’re sourcing from everywhere. Every vendor we can find.”
FEMA documents released Thursday by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform showed that for requests in Delaware, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, FEMA had provided just a small fraction of the equipment. For example, of 5.2 million total requested N95 masks, they had received only 445,000. Of 194 million requested pairs of gloves, they had only received 991,000.
With the hashtag circulating #GetMePPE, hundreds of healthcare workers are begging for more PPE, while sharing the lengths they are taking to protect themselves while short on equipment. Some shared the bags they used to store and reuse their face shields and N95 masks after reusing them several times over. Another photo circulated of an ER nurse wearing swim goggles.
N95 masks are particularly useful, as they protect physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and others from airborne droplets. Goggles and face shields provide needed eye protection.
Why is PPE so hard to obtain? Pricing is a big factor. Brokers of protective equipment have driven up the prices as states bid for equipment. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office said N95 masks, which normally cell for just 58 cents each, are now selling for $7.50, according to Bloomberg. Several masks are still being purchased by foreign buyers.
Here are some of the efforts underway to make more masks available:
- #GetUsPPE, a take on #GetMePPE, is a grassroots effort started by a group of emergency medicine physicians. The site takes in requests from health systems for PPE, and coordinates with local donors. As of March 31, the site had received 1,975 requests from physicians across the country.
- Project N95 takes a similar approach, but at the supplier level. Pulled together by a group of volunteers, the project is described as a “national clearinghouse” for personal protective equipment. Since March 20th, Project N95 said it had received requests from 2,535 institutions for more than 341 million units.
- Several companies have also donated their stockpiles of masks, some of which they had stocked up on after devastating wildfire seasons in California. Facebook donated its reserve of 720,000 N95 masks, and Tesla donated 50,000 to a UW Medicine physician’s home. Apple donated a whopping 9 million masks it had in reserve last week, Vice President Mike Pence said last week.
- Retailers that might have sold protective equipment have also begun to direct those supplies toward healthcare workers. Last week, Lowes said it would donate $10 million in protective equipment, including respirators, and this week, Home Depot said it would stop selling N95 masks in its stores and redirect them to healthcare workers and emergency responders.
Photo credit: Al Bello, Getty Images