Despite months of warning, the US could soon run out of gloves, goggles, and body bags as coronavirus cases keep surging

A healthcare worker conducts a coronavirus test in Tolleson, Arizona, on June 18, 2020. Courtney Pedroza/Reuters
  • The US could face another shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) as stocks run low and coronavirus cases surge to record levels.
  • Documents obtained by NBC News show the national stockpile is low on equipment, and has so far only shipped a small proportion of some of the equipment that states and regions have asked for.
  • Healthcare workers are also reporting shortages, as they did in the early days of the outbreak.
  • Meanwhile, White House officials, including the coronavirus task force supply chief, are denying the existence of severe shortages.
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The US could soon face another shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and run out of items like gloves, goggles, and body bags.

Health and Human Services Department documents obtained by NBC News show that national bodies in charge of distributing such equipment have vastly depleted stocks.

The news comes as US coronavirus cases reach record levels.

The documents, as well as testimony from hospitals and healthcare workers, point to a national stockpile that appears to be running low of key equipment, and that did not ship anywhere close to what authorities around the country said they needed.

The documents show that both the Strategic National Stockpile, a national stockpile of equipment for public-health emergencies, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have 900,000 gloves left in reserve after having shipped 82.7 million of them to states and other health authorities.

That 82.7 million represents jut 30% of the figure requested by authorities across the country, NBC News reported.

The authorities also have just 329,000 pairs of goggles in the stockpile, while so far they have only provided 29% of the 4.9 million pairs of goggles that state and local governments have requested since the outbreak began.

State and local authorities have also requested from the national stockpile 17.9 million medical gowns, but federal authorities have only shipped out 5.2 million, and 8.5 million are still in reserve, NBC reported.

And only 69,067 body bags have been distributed, even though state and local governments requested 175,797, NBC News reported.

Earlier this week CNN also reported that only about half of the face masks that state and local governments ordered will be delivered this year.

An N95 mask. Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

Nursing homes also say they are facing severe shortages.

Mark Parkinson, the president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and the National Centre for Assisted Living, warned governors this week that nearly 20% of nursing homes have warned the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) that “they either do not have or have less than a one-week supply of PPE,” NBC reported.

“N-95 masks are still not available and were not included in the FEMA shipments to nursing homes,” Parkinson said.

The US already faced severe shortages

The US ramped up its production of PPE through the Defence Production Act, a 1950 wartime law, in April.

President Donald Trump had resisted calls from Democrats and other groups to use the act in March, saying that manufacturers were producing enough equipment.

At the time, the US was already facing a shortage of equipment like ventilators, masks, and goggles.

Medical workers across the country said they were forced to reuse PPE that was designed to be used once, with the first emergency-room doctor to die from the coronavirus saying he got sick because he had to use the same mask four days in a row.

Many healthcare workers protested in April against PPE shortages, and states said they were left bidding against each other to buy PPE on the market.

A socially-distanced protest shows the faces of nurses and frontline healthcare workers pleading for adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building in April 2020. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MoveOn

The new warnings and investigations into what is in the stockpile come as US cases – and thus demand for the equipment – hit new highs.

Nurses told The Washington Post in July that they have had to reuse N95 masks for days or weeks at a time.

Kelly Magsamen, a former Pentagon official who directed strategic planning at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, told CNN this week that the low supply as demand rises could have been avoided if the Defence Production Act was authorised earlier.

“I think a much more aggressive and early use of the Defence Production Act in probably the February time frame would have saved a lot of the heartaches we are seeing right now with respect to PPE shortages across the country,” she said.

She said the government should have used more powers under the act, like tax breaks, to incentivise companies to increase PPE production.

“The fact that there wasn’t an organised top-down federal response early and quickly enough, I think, has put us in a position where essentially everybody is playing catch-up, including the Trump administration,” she said.

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro defended the way the Trump administration used the act, telling CNN:”We have not hesitated to use the Defence Production Act when necessary.”

“One of the beauties of using the Defence Production Act when necessary is that it has reduced the need to actually have to invoke it because we get voluntary contribution.”

Nurses display support for the National Nurses United and California Nurses Association’s demand for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers across the state at UCLA Medical Centre Santa Monicon April 13, 2020 in California. ( VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Federal officials are also denying the existence of any big shortages.

John Polowczyk, the chief supply-chain official for the White House coronavirus task force, told NBC News that there are no severe shortages, and that the situation is better than it was earlier in the outbreak.

“I’m not going to pretend to tell you that supply and demand are perfectly aligned again, because there is still some residual hunting and pecking for a few things,” he said.

“But supply and demand back orders are trending typically down, and we’re fundamentally in a volume place differently than we were in, say, March and then very early April.”

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters last week that “PPE, we hear, remains very strong.”