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By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Health-care worker wearing a mask (Image source: Public domain)
We have been hearing for weeks now about hospitals dealing with the shortage of equipment because of the epidemic. This includes N95 masks, surgical masks, and ventilators. While the government has an emergency stockpile of these items, it's now been nearly exhausted, according to Department of Homeland Security officials. This leaves an urgency to have it replaced and a question of what hospitals will do once there are no more supplies, while the numbers of cases and deaths continue to grow.
As clusters of the virus increase across the United States, health officials, hospital executives, and governors are saying the shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) are critical. Health-care workers will be risking their lives while trying to help an influx of patients.
Donald Trump confirmed during Wednesday's White House briefing that the stockpile is almost depleted. He told the press that his administration has sent supplies "directly to hospitals."
"The stockpile was designed to respond to a handful of cities. It was never built or designed to fight a 50-state pandemic," said a DHS official. "This is not only a U.S. government problem: the supply chain for PPE worldwide has broken down, and there is a lot of price-gouging happening."
Trump said on Tuesday that there are nearly 10,000 ventilators on reserve and ready to be deployed soon. He added that a great amount of PPE were being shipped from manufacturers directly to hospitals. DHS officials noted, however, that the stockpile has not been able to handle the load.
One of the officials said hospitals and states are facing a very real risk of running out of supplies. "If you can't protect the people taking care of us, it gets ugly," said the official.
Several reports recently documented that medical supply stock is being dominated by intermediaries and hoarders who are selling N95 respirator masks and other PPE at a huge markup. Forbes published that U.S. vendors have sold 280 million masks, mostly into exports. U.S. states and local governments were outbid in the process.
There doesn't seem to be an effort on the part of the Trump administration. There is no effort on its part to stop the exporting of the supplies. Nor are they seizing them so that they can be used in hospitals. Yet, Attorney General William Barr said last week that hoarders would get "a knock on your door."
Governors have been begging for equipment and protective gear to be shipped to their states. They feel distribution of the storage has been uneven with some states reporting they have only received a fraction of what they need.
"[Federal Emergency Management Agency] planning assumptions for COVID-19 pandemic response acknowledged that the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) alone could not fulfill all requirements at the state and tribal level," said FEMA spokeswoman Janet Montesi in a statement. "The federal government will exhaust all means to identify and attain medical and other supplies needed to combat the virus."
She added that the government has more than $16 billion available to get more supplies. "We remain committed to helping ensure key medical supplies expeditiously arrive at the front lines for our health-care workers," insisted Montesi.
The White House reports that FEMA had shipped or delivered 11.6 million N95 respirator masks, 26 million surgical masks, 5.2 million face shields, 4.3 million surgical gowns, 22 million gloves, and 8,100 ventilators as of last weekend.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a stockpile of 1.5 million expired N95 masks in storage that will be distributed to the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a CBP statement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines for using expired masks safely. Being expired, the elastic bands could possibly be left too loose so as to not form a proper seal to the face.
While there was talk that some of the expired masks would be given to hospitals, a CBP official confirmed on Wednesday that the masks will go to ICE agents and TSA officers.
According to a senior administration official, the national stockpile has been seen for a long time as an emergency supply to buy manufacturers time to increase the output and for new supply chains to get on solid ground. The official added that it doesn't serve a purpose for those supplies to sit in a warehouse.
The official was asked about the concerns that the government will not be able to keep up with the PPE demand and said planes are coming in from Asia every day for the next few weeks, bringing in new materials. A plane carrying 80 tons of PPE just arrived on Sunday.
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