Hospitals Have Growing Concerns Over Shortage of Medical Masks

In the midst of the rapid outbreak of the Corona Virus, US Health Care Organizations are growing growing concerned over the availability of medical masks in the case of the virus becoming a health threat in North America.

Tom Nickels, executive vice president of the American Hospital Association, speaking to reporters first raised the concerns his members are worrying about.  “Because China produces such a large proportion of the US’ drugs and medical supplies—especially personal protective equipment like medical masks that are used by hospital caregivers to protect themselves and their patients from infection—our members have expressed real concern that the already fragile supply chain will break with the worsening conditions in China.   The AHA and hospitals are working with the appropriate emergency preparedness officials at the Department of Health and Human Services to keep them informed about the potential impact that worsening shortages could have. ”

China has already reached out to the world in an effort to import more masks for their massive population as their own production ability isn’t sufficient to meet the demand.  To this point, the virus has mostly be contained to the Wuhan area of the country, but both the World Health Organization as well as the Center for Disease Control fear that it is only a matter of time before the virus makes an impact in the United States and Canada.

With China being unable to ship masks to the outside world – this potentially is going to create massive shortage in medical masks for the rest of the globe.  A supply chain gap won’t only pose a risk if the novel coronavirus spreads here in North America. It could become a risk immediately, because masks and respirators are essential to everyday health care.   Surgical teams wear masks to protect their patients, and people with infectious diseases wear masks to protect health care workers and other patients.

” If shortages occur hospitals would have to think through what they could sacrifice, from postponing elective surgeries to asking workers to wash and reuse their gear.”

But in some parts of the health care system, supplies are already patchy says Sean McNeeley, a physician who, until recently, was president of the Urgent Care Association.  McNeeley is medical director for a Midwestern network of urgent-care clinics associated with a large hospital, which buys its stock from most of the major wholesalers in the US. “I am hearing from all these vendors that they are having issues with things on back order,” he says.

The need to provide respiratory protection in an epidemic hasn’t been a secret. For the past 15 years, a group of federal agencies including the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security have had official plans for a pandemic, though the pandemic they envisioned was flu.

The original 2005 National Pandemic Strategy, was prompted by the worldwide outbreak of the H5N1 flu that began in Hong Kong in 1997, as well as the 2003 SARS outbreak, which began on the Chinese mainland and then spread to the North America Continent.

What the strategy didn’t specify was where those devices would come from. Since 2009, when an epidemic of H1N1 flu swept the United States, experts have been insisting that this lack of specificity has been a major mistake.  Large companies like 3M have been ramping up their mask production to meet global demand – but most of their factories are in China where the shortage is the greatest and is a country where the Government has the ability to force supplies to be used for domestic consumption only.

And unless the epidemic changes course, the pressure on companies will only continue to get worse.


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