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The U.S. is experiencing a coronavirus déjà vu.
Just like in early March, cases are spiking across the country, hospitals are overwhelmed, testing is lagging, and the White House doesn’t have a concrete plan to address the situation.
And just like in the early days of the outbreak, the country is once again running out of gowns, masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE).
On Wednesday, speaking at the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, Vice President Mike Pence claimed that PPE supplies remain “very strong,” but in the same breath he said the Trump administration is now encouraging healthcare workers “to use some of the best practices” to “preserve and reuse” face masks and other protective equipment.
While the White House claims there are no “severe shortages” of PPE, healthcare professionals including doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics across the country are telling a very different story.
In Texas, which is experiencing one of the biggest spikes in COVID-19 cases among the states, doctors at a hospital in Houston are being told to reuse single-use N95 respirator masks for up to 15 days before throwing them out.
The National Nurses United, the country’s largest organization of registered nurses, found 85% of members were forced to reuse disposable N95 masks while treating coronavirus patients.
The country’s second-largest nursing organization, the American Nurses Association, found 79% of its members were asked to reuse masks and 45% reported PPE shortages at their facility.
But it’s not just hospitals that are suffering from significant shortages of supplies.
The American Medical Association told the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that centers providing primary care, chemotherapy, and minor surgeries have struggled to reopen because they are unable to secure PPE.
Last week the AMA called for more transparency on PPE supplies in a letter to the emergency agency, saying that there is a “lack of data to help us ascertain whether the central problem is in the availability of raw material, production backlogs, gaps in the distribution systems, or some combination of all three.”
The AMA sent a second letter to Pence last week, urging the White House to invoke the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to make more N95 masks and gowns.
Healthcare workers are among the worst-hit groups by the coronavirus. Almost 100,000 have been infected and at least 500 have died, according to incomplete data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The real number is thought to be much higher.
Part of the problem is simply finding suppliers to fill the orders of PPE. Last month Washington state’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, said officials had struggled to find suppliers — either domestic or international.
A report from FEMA last month showed a worrying shortage of medical gowns and no increase in production of PPE since March, when doctors and nurses were reduced to wearing trash bags to protect themselves.
In a letter to Trump last month, Inslee said he has tried to buy $400 million in equipment but that only 10% of orders have been filled.
Inslee urged Trump to “use the Defense Production Act to increase domestic PPE production necessary to meet current and projected needs for all workers in all sectors.”
The U.S. passed 3 million confirmed coronavirus infections on Wednesday, with states like Texas, California, Florida, and Arizona reporting major increases in infections. In Tulsa, a senior health official said Wednesday that a Trump rally in the city in late June “more than likely contributed” to a spike in cases there.
But despite the growing case numbers, rising death total, and increasingly vocal concern among health professionals about PPE shortage, the Trump administration still appears to be burying its head in the sand, with no concrete plans to address the crisis.
Instead, Trump is pushing to reopen the economy and falsely claiming that the spike in new cases is simply due to increased testing. And the man charged with organizing the nation’s PPE supplies is following suit.
“I’m not going to tell you we’re able to meet all demand, but there’s significantly less unfulfilled orders today than in April,” Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, whom Trump put in charge of coronavirus-related supplies, told the Washington Post. “I have not found a hospital system that is in threat of running out. … I don’t have the sense of there being severe shortages.”
Cover: Shania Dod, right, collects a sample at a United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 testing site Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)