Five Facts about Medical Personal Protective Equipment

The fast-spreading coronavirus has left many hospitals and health professionals scrambling to find personal protective equipment, or PPE. These items – including gloves, gowns, face masks and face shields – are vital in protecting workers treating seriously ill patients.

  1. Many hospitals are running dangerously short of PPE.

Homeland Security officials have warned that the government’s emergency stockpile of masks, gloves and other medical supplies is running low, leaving administration and state governments to compete for gear “in a global marketplace rife with price-gouging.” The Advisory Board, a consortium of health officials, says the shortage “is forcing U.S. health systems to deploy creative strategies to conserve and improvise alternatives to face masks, respirators, eye protection, and gowns, though their efficacy is unproven.”

  1. PPE normally is intended to be used once and then discarded.

The Food and Drug Administration states: “In general, most PPE is designed to be used only one time and by one person prior to disposal.” It warns that washing PPE, in order to reuse it, “changes its protective or barrier capabilities, and it may no longer be effective.”

  1. The current crisis is forcing many hospitals to reuse PPE that normally would be thrown away.

George Washington University Hospital (in DC) has told health professionals to reuse  respirator masks, and it has placed its PPE supply “under lock and key” after reported thefts of face masks. In Massachusetts and the San Francisco area, hospital workers say they're being forced to reuse N-95 masks, designed to protect them from airborne particles coughed or sneezed by sick patients. Some health workers have worn plastic garbage bags because they lack protective gowns.

  1. The pandemic is prompting extraordinary efforts – some involving 3-D printers – to safely recycle PPE or create new equipment.

The Centers for Disease Control says alternative gear such as bandanas or lab coats aren't considered adequate substitutes for face masks or gowns. Still, “many organizations are turning to them as a last resort—as evidenced by a JAMA call for ideas that surfaced solutions from using scuba masks to making 3D-printed face shields,” the Advisory Board reports.

  1. The government is supporting new efforts to decontaminate and reuse PPE.

The FDA has given approval to a U.S. company to ramp up development of a procedure to decontaminate PPE so front-line health care workers can safely reuse needed items. The Battelle Critical Care Decontamination “is the first of its kind, capable of cleaning up to 80,000 pieces of PPE at a time,” NPR reports.


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