Pennsylvania Hospitals are Rationing Protective Gear Like Respirators and Gowns as Coronavirus Cases Spread

Pennsylvania health officials say a rush to purchase protective gear against the coronavirus, including gowns and surgical masks, has caused a shortage which may potentially prevent hospitals and doctors from assisting infected patients.

Hospital workers and physicians across Pennsylvania said they are rationing out protective gear such as N95 respirators, eye wear and gowns, which are used by health workers to protect themselves from becoming infected with the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 illness. A joint report conducted by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pennlive, the PA Post, WITF-TV and other state media groups revealed a potentially dangerous shortage of this personal protective equipment that has been caused in part by the public rushing to buy such masks and respirators.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health maintained that such equipment is still readily available, but doctors say the public is soaking up supplies that don't help healthy people to ward off the coronavirus without special fitting.

A majority of hospitals have not exhausted supplies of N95 masks and other gear which keeps health workers from breathing in coronavirus particles from infected patients - but that may soon change as cases increase both state and nationwide.

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Mark Ross, vice president of emergency management at the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania told the news outlets that hospitals are utilizing "conservation techniques" based on guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Part of that guidance includes doing more with less, such as using simpler surgical face masks instead of the more sophisticated N95 respirators.

"Doing those conservation techniques helps us expand our capacity to make those masks last if there is a slowdown in the supply chain," Ross told the Pennsylvania news outlets in articles published Monday.

Dr. Arvind Venkat, president of the Pennsylvania College of Emergency Physicians joined several top health officials in warning that workers exposed to infected patients are very much at daily risk, particularly without the necessary equipment being purchased by fearful members of the public.

"We're in danger of reaching a critical point with personal protective equipment," Venkat explained. "If we don't protect ourselves appropriately, and become infected and don't realize it, then just like any other person, we can transmit the disease to others as well."

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Earlier this month, the federal Department of Health and Human Services Agency reported the U.S. had only about 1 percent of the N95 masks needed in case of a "full-blown pandemic." But last Thursday, Health Secretary Rachel Levine told the Pennsylvania publications that the state had a "significant" stockpile of respirators and was ready for a surge in coronavirus patients.

Several physicians at free clinics throughout the state took to social media to request assistance in how to treat patients with limited supplies.

"I help run a nonprofit clinic for uninsured and undocumented patients in Philly. We have no more masks. Need recs on how to manage patients (who have limited access) and clinic," tweeted Dr. Daphne Owen, Assistant Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine, at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to the state's Department of Health, there are 63 confirmed cases in Pennsylvania, with nearly half of those centering around Montgomery County in the southeastern part of the state outside Philadelphia. Of the 446 persons under investigation for being infected, 205 have tested negative and 183 are pending.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment by publication.

pennsylvania n95 respirator shortage hospitals
Pennsylvania health officials say a rush to purchase protective gear against the coronavirus, including gowns and surgical masks, has caused a shortage which may potentially prevent hospitals and doctors from assisting infected patients. LAUREN DECICCA / Stringer/Getty Images
Pennsylvania Hospitals are Rationing Protective Gear Like Respirators and Gowns as Coronavirus Cases Spread | Health