Commentary: As more states and cities “reopen” for business, health experts are warning there could be a spike in both cases and deaths caused by novel coronavirus (COVID-19) infection. Simultaneously, many hospitals still lack adequate supplies needed both to protect their staff and to treat and test patients. On Friday, U.S. PIRG, Get Us PPE and Doctors for America co-hosted a panel on which leading physicians and U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (N.J.) from the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis discussed how we can keep health care workers safe, so that they, in turn, can treat the general public.
“The lack of national and state guidance on how to manage COVID leaves every hospital, clinic and health department on its own in setting policies. Who in our workforce gets tested? How often? How do we get PPE (personal protective equipment) and supplies? When do we open up?” said Dr. Julie Parsonnet, a Stanford University professor of infectious diseases and epidemiology.
U.S. PIRG, Get Us PPE, Doctors for America, other health groups and nearly 300 medical professionals sent a letter to the Trump Administration on May 1 calling for central coordination of the medical supply chain and comprehensive testing infrastructure. According to the American Health Care Association, three quarters of its members are running out of PPE such as masks and gowns, and 60 percent have had to reuse or make their own equipment.
"We’re the richest, most powerful country in the world. Our frontline doctors and nurses shouldn’t have to resort to making their own PPE to stay safe,” said Rep. Kim. “We need a robust national plan to ensure they have the supplies to stay safe now and to make sure they’re ready for any potential second wave later in the year."
Instead of focusing its efforts on coordinating the supply chain and establishing a transparent system to get medical supplies to areas in need, the federal government has been funneling supplies to private companies. Some of those suppliers have taken advantage of states, local governments, and hospitals competing against each other by charging inflated prices.
“States and hospitals are all bidding against one another on the private market for PPE and ventilators,” said Dr. Joe Kanter, the Louisiana Department of Health’s lead official for the Greater New Orleans Region. “It has been said we as a nation are at war. Why would we force each battalion to compete for crucial supplies?”
Coronavirus test kits are one of the most important supply categories of which each “battalion” needs more.
“Comprehensive testing is what we need to pave a way out of the COVID-19 crisis, and the federal government has the authority and power to make that happen now,” said Matt Wellington, Public Health Campaigns director for U.S. PIRG.
Many governors and mayors reopening their jurisdictions early are bucking expert advice that widespread, thorough testing should be a key criteria for safely lifting stay at home restrictions, especially given how many people are asymptomatic, yet could potentially spread the disease.
“Unfortunately, tests are a finite resource. That should not be the case in this county. They should flow like tap water,” said Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust, attending physician in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Department of Emergency Medicine in the Health Policy Division and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.