Blog | Thursday, May 21, 2020

Weeks into this, inadequate PPE is a national disgrace to America


When the whole coronavirus crisis started to escalate in the United States in April, there could not have been a more unified cry from the health care frontlines—we need personal protective equipment (PPE) ASAP! The risk to medical workers of coronavirus exposure has been well-documented, and unfortunately proven by the many tragic deaths.

I work in more than one health care facility in Massachusetts, and consider myself somewhat lucky to be in hospitals that have provided clinicians with adequate PPE. Despite some initial concerns, we have managed to keep our frontlines pretty well protected. I know though this hasn't been the case everywhere.

The stories back in March, about health care professionals wearing their own scarves and bandanas over their mouths and noses, were shocking. Since then, hospital and political leaders have repeatedly assured that the country's industries would be working overtime to produce PPE for the frontlines.

Weeks into this crisis now, it's inexcusable that in a country as rich as the United States, we are still hearing of shortages. For anyone not medically trained reading this—the main protective equipment needed by doctors and nurses before entering a COVID-19 patient's room, is an N95 respirator, face shield, gown, and gloves. Other items like surgical masks, disinfectant wipes and sanitizer, are also crucial to have in abundance.

The main problem has been with N95 respirators, a relatively small mask that goes over the mouth and nose. Before this crisis, many of these were manufactured overseas—ironically mostly in China. But an N95 respirator is not a particularly complicated piece of equipment to make. It typically costs less than a dollar to make.

The United States is easily the richest country in the world, with an economy worth $20 trillion. We have first world technology and some of the most sophisticated, modern hospitals in the world. We can transplant hearts, perform minimally invasive surgeries, and administer cutting-edge treatments to our patients. Away from medicine, we are capable of building mind-boggling skyscrapers and bridges, our military has unbelievably futuristic technology, and we are regularly launching shuttles into space.

In monetary terms, we are used to talking in the hundreds of thousands, millions, and billions. An N95 is less than a dollar. How difficult could it be in this unique time, with the number of industries here, to immediately mobilize them to focus on making millions of PPE items, specifically N95s, for health care workers? There have been many companies, small and large, that have stepped up and started making PPE. But this hasn't happened fast enough. Some donated equipment is coming in, also from overseas, which isn't really what we should be really relying on. I understand that ramping up production can take a couple of weeks to get going, but here we are well over a month into this—and still there are stories of shortages, putting the frontlines at risk. It's unacceptable and a national disgrace to America.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author and speaker. He is the founder of DocSpeak Communications and co-founder at DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, where this post first appeared.