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  • Medical personnel are speaking out about how they’re being forced to reuse masks, gloves, and gowns, and resort to making their own protective medical gear.
  • One nurse told Healthline she’s only allowed one surgical mask per shift.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes the reuse and overuse of PPE as “crisis capacity,” and though necessary, does “not commensurate with U.S. standards of care.”

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

Healthcare workers continue to face a growing shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) as they admit and treat patients who have COVID-19.

Medical personnel are speaking out about how they’re being forced to reuse masks, gloves, and gowns, and resort to making their own protective medical gear.

A quick look at the hashtag #GetMePPE on Twitter will show story after story detailing the crisis medical workers face.

Surgical masks, which are only supposed to be used once, are being reused. Doctors are using plastic bags instead of face shields.

One couple, both of whom are ER physicians, is sharing N95 masks (the thicker, tightly sealed respirators) with one another.

One emergency department registered nurse based in rural Oregon told Healthline she was feeling overwhelmed by a lack of supplies and the fact she only gets one mask per shift.

“One surgical mask per shift is obscene and just plain unacceptable,” the nurse told Healthline. She wished to remain anonymous since she wasn’t authorized to speak for her hospital.

“If we get sick, there is no one left to care for them. And please keep reminding people to practice social distancing. Our ventilators and critical care staff that are able to take care of patients on those ventilators is limited.

“This isn’t just the case in my city, but all around the United States. If we have the opportunity to limit how fast this virus spreads in our communities that will be such a huge help the healthcare workers in your community,” the nurse said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes the reuse and overuse of PPE as “crisis capacity,” and though necessary, does “not commensurate with U.S. standards of care.”

Last week, JAMA put out a call for new ideas on how to conserve the supply of PPE in an effort to ensure patients and healthcare workers are safely protected from the virus.

Since then, a stream of innovative, new ideas have come in.

From 3-D printing and sewing clubs to repurposing snorkeling gear, groups are coming up with new, and sometimes bizarre, ways to make PPE that can keep healthcare workers safe.

The lack of PPE shouldn’t be taken lightly. When medical staff don’t have the proper protective gear, they put not only themselves at risk but other patients as well.

Say, for example, a physician treats a patient who has COVID-19.

Typically, the physician would remove any gear that was exposed to the patient (and, therefore, the virus). But now, they must disinfect the gear and immediately reuse it, which significantly increases the risk of exposure.

“When healthcare workers enter patient rooms with inadequate PPE or without any PPE, we’re at risk for becoming disease carriers and potentially develop life threatening disease ourselves. If we then enter rooms of subsequent patients or interact with family members or others in our communities without PPE, we can spread the disease unintentionally,” said Dr. Amar Kelkar, a hematology and oncology fellow and internal medicine physician based in Florida.

If more healthcare providers get sick or are exposed to the new coronavirus and need to self-quarantine, the patient-to-provider ratio will inflate: There will be less qualified healthcare workers who are able to take care of an increasing number of patients.

“This sort of vicious cycle can accelerate the impact of the disease on the community,” Kelkar said.

The CDC recommends that all people wear cloth face masks in public places where it’s difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from others.
This will help slow the spread of the virus from people without symptoms or people who do not know they have contracted the virus.
Cloth face masks should be worn while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home can be found here.
Note: It’s critical to reserve surgical masks and N95 respirators for healthcare workers.

Healthline

Hospitals have been making masks from other available equipment as a last resort.

Henry Ford Health System’s Innovation Institute is using “nylon jersey fabric, elastic bands, Velcro, tongue depressors and air filter material” to create washable, reusable face shields.

While these may protect workers to a degree, they’re not medical grade and therefore likely less effective than surgical masks, N95 masks, and face shields.

Overall, there hasn’t been much research comparing gear approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) with homemade PPE, but the evidence we do have cautions against the use of cloth masks.

“Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection,” a study from 2015 reported.

Another report from 2010 found that particles and aerosols — which can carry coronaviruses — are much more likely to seep through cloth masks than N95 respirators.

Healthcare workers are also being asked to reuse masks or prolong their use.

“A major risk with either strategy is involuntary or accidental touching of the face or of masks that can result in the masks being contaminated and risk spreading infection to the wearer or patients they come into contact with,” Kelkar said.

The seal of the masks can also weaken over time, making them less effective, he adds.

Across the country, people and companies are scrambling to create and donate equipment to those on the front line.

Dr. Mehmet Toner, a biomedical engineer and professor of biomedical engineering at Massachusetts General Hospital, is part of a team of engineers that plans to use 3-D printing to create more masks.

Toner’s team is currently meeting with various laboratories and printing companies to figure out the quickest and most efficient way to begin 3-D printing protective face masks in bulk.

Toner says it’s still unclear when production would begin, but everything is moving very fast.

“As far as the technology, it really could be geared up quite fast. Once we have the design parameters and what not, it could move fast,” Toner told Healthline.

Right now, Toner’s team is focusing specifically on producing masks.

“Right now we are focused on N95 masks, but the technology is very adaptive, so it is possible that we use it for other things as well, especially for pieces of the ventilator. It could be a quick way to actually do that,” Toner said.

Other healthcare systems, including Stony Brook University, Columbia Medicine, and CoxHealth, have joined the race to use 3-D printing technologies to manufacture hospital PPE. Some are already putting the printed gear to the test.

Hospitals have also called on local sewing groups to produce 10,000 homemade masks in the next 10 weeks. Since then, thousands of crafters have banded together and joined the Million Mask Challenge with the goal of making 1 million masks.

Medical TV shows, like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Resident,” are also donating thousands of gloves and gowns from their costume departments.

Textile firms, automobile companies, furniture makers, and clothing designers have also joined the fight. They’re repurposing their materials and skills to urgently make PPE, like masks, gowns, and hospital beds.

According to healthcare workers, the PPE donations have been uplifting. And while they’ve made a tremendous impact, there’s still a dire need for more equipment.

“We’re already in a worst-case scenario,” Kelkar said. “We need to address the PPE shortages now on a national level before providers are completely out of PPE and must face the reality of how treating just one patient without proper PPE may harm many others.”

“Terms like ‘drafted’ and ‘front lines’ are thrown around to conjure the image of a war zone. Except we don’t send soldiers out to battle without appropriate equipment,” he added.

Without a massive surge in PPE production, hospitals may soon find themselves with no more PPE.

And that, according to Kelkar, would be a deadly path to take.

Healthcare workers continue to face a growing shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) as they admit and treat patients who have COVID-19.

When medical staff don’t have the proper protective gear, they have a higher risk for contracting the virus and passing it to other patients.

Across the country, people from all industries have been working to create masks and face shields. But the need for more PPE is dire.

Without an urgent surge in production, health experts say more lives will be lost.