The short supply of masks in particular is dire.
Why is there a shortage of protective masks?
The coronavirus is transmitted by droplets from coughing or contaminated surfaces, so properly applied protective gear can go a long way toward keeping doctors safe.
At minimum, doctors should be wearing gloves, gowns, eye gear and masks. But for weeks, hospitals have been running dangerously low on essential supplies.
Many doctors said they were being given just one mask, to use indefinitely. Between patients, they spray it down with a disinfectant or wipe it off, hoping for the best. But they feared that being forced to reuse a mask might infect patients who did not yet have the virus.
Why is this happening?
In part, a widespread buying of masks by anxious citizens limited commercial supply. Experts say masks and respirators are not effective for protecting the general public, but are crucial for health care workers.
If you bought masks and have them at home, donate them to a hospital immediately. You will be safer if your doctors are safer.
Also, the prolonged outbreak in China dwindled supply. Even before the coronavirus emerged, China produced about half of the world’s masks. During the outbreak, it expanded its mask production by nearly 12-fold.
(The outbreak also comes after a particularly mask-intensive few months. Wildfires in California and in Australia had already diminished the supply of some humanitarian organizations.)
Even though no new local infections have been reported in China in recent days, the country continues to hoard its supply.
Which masks should health care professionals be using?
Ideally, clinicians would be using a new, tightly-sealed respirator, like the N95, with each patient. These are thicker than standard surgical masks, and are designed to fit more tightly around the mouth and nose to block out much smaller particles. The Food and Drug Administration said that neither surgical masks nor N95s should be shared or be reused.
As the outbreak worsened and there were shortages in medical supplies across the country, the C.D.C. updated its recommendations for optimizing the supply of protective gear.
Now, except in the case of intubations, which involve inserting a breathing tube, the agency says standard surgical masks are acceptable when examining or treating a coronavirus patient. (This aligns more closely with the W.H.O., which advises that surgical masks can be used in some situations, but warns that they are not sufficient on their own.)
Some medical professionals suggested that the C.D.C.’s new recommendations are borne of political expediency instead of science.
“We are concerned that C.D.C. recommendations are based solely on supply chain and manufacturing challenges,” the American Nurses Association said in a public letter.
Now, the C.D.C. also outlines a crisis strategy for wearing the same mask for repeated encounters with different patients. It suggests medical professionals may need to use masks beyond the manufacturer-designated shelf life date, and to prioritize the use of masks for activities in which there may be sprays, splashes or prolonged exposure.
“As a last resort,” the C.D.C. says “homemade masks” like a bandanna or a scarf can be used, although their protective ability is unknown.
What efforts are being made to get people masks?
At a news conference on Saturday at the White House, Vice President Mike Pence said the federal government had ordered “hundreds of millions” of N95s for health care centers across the country, but he did not say precisely when they would be delivered to workers.
The White House also signaled that American companies have been increasing efforts to restock hospitals, citing that Hanes and General Motors will make masks. But it again stopped short of discussing in detail any sort of fulfillment of the more assertive demands coming from some state and local leaders.
Some doctors in Oregon and in Washington have recently received gear from the Strategic National Stockpile, a federal repository of critical medical supplies for public health emergencies. But officials in both states said it was far less than what they had requested.
Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.