D.C. Area COVID-19 Equipment Shortage Sparks Creative Solutions, Pleas For Donations Doctors say they already feel the shortage of protective equipment weeks ahead of an expected surge in coronavirus cases.
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D.C. Area COVID-19 Equipment Shortage Sparks Creative Solutions, Pleas For Donations

D.C. Area COVID-19 Equipment Shortage Sparks Creative Solutions, Pleas For Donations

D.C. Area COVID-19 Equipment Shortage Sparks Creative Solutions, Pleas For Donations

D.C. Area COVID-19 Equipment Shortage Sparks Creative Solutions, Pleas For Donations

Arlington County, Virginia, held a donation drive Friday for personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning supplies and non-perishable food items. Governments and hospitals across the D.C. region are hunting for scarce medical gear ahead of the anticipated spike in COVID-19 cases. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Hospitals and local governments in the D.C. region are hunting for scarce medical supplies to protect healthcare workers from contagion as they treat COVID-19 patients. Local doctors and nurses say they're already feeling the effects of rationing, even though the expected surge in cases is still weeks away.

The Sentara Medical Center in Woodbridge, Va., is studying how to disinfect used masks. Kaiser Permanente says it's working with textile companies and 3-D manufacturers to make more equipment for its medical centers.

Arlington County turned to an old-fashioned donation drive Friday to shake loose boxes of masks and gloves that might be lying buried in basements. Five hundred people answered the call and drove up to the Central Library, which will serve as a warehouse while it's closed to the public due to the pandemic.

Retiree Kathy Wood wore a purple bandana around her face as she handed a box of vinyl gloves and a single N95 mask to volunteers.

"I got it years ago for some home repair stuff but I never used it," Wood said of the mask.

Aaron Miller, emergency manager in Arlington, said hospitals in the county had enough protective gear – for now. He said they had ordered more supplies to arrive at two, four, six eight and ten-week intervals.

"However," he continued, "Based upon modeling assumptions, it is possible that we could experience critical shortages. We just don't know."

The challenge is that COVID-19 care requires mountains of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Normally, a medical worker would use a gown, gloves and mask only once, discarding after each patient. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is a physician, has estimated that treating one patient can require as much as 240 sets of protective gear.

Supplies are already tight. A doctor at George Washington University Hospital said she is using her N95 mask all day, instead of the standard practice of using one per patient. She's also holding onto her used masks in case she has to recycle them if the hospital runs out.

"It's not the typical standard of care," said the doctor, who spoke anonymously because she wasn't authorized to give interviews. "It's not ideal."

In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said Friday she plans to add 5,000 more hospital beds to the city's capacity, and she laid out a staggering list of equipment needed: 600,000 N95 masks, 5.6 million surgical masks, 1.4 million gowns, 350,000 face shields and 40 million gloves.

To fulfill that list, D.C., as well as Virginia and Maryland each requested significant amounts of protective gear from the Strategic National Stockpile. They received a fraction of those asks: for example, D.C. asked for 1.1 million N95 masks and received just 5,520. Asked on Twitter how she would make up the gap, Bowser wrote that the city would rely on the national stockpile, private manufacturers and local businesses.

Doctors and nurses say working without enough gear puts them and their patients at risk. Five nurses at Saint Elizabeths Hospital and a doctor at Children's National Hospital have tested positive for the disease. Howard University Hospital nurse Noel Sinkiat, 64, died on March 27. His widow Lourdes Gerardo told The Washington Post he died of COVID-19. She, too, was infected. It was not clear where Sinkiat caught the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the need for gear is driving invention. At an innovation lab at Children's National Hospital, engineers created 150 prototypes for a face guard that would protect against sprayed droplets. Video released by the hospital showed engineers draping plastic film around blocks of black foam. Spokesman Jamel Langley said the hospital will use doctor feedback to choose the right model for mass production.

In Maryland, a boating canvas business and a draperies manufacturer paired up with county governments to produce masks, according to Bethesda Magazine. Other hospitals are accepting donations of 3D-printed face shields and hand-sewn masks.

The medical supply shortage will likely become more acute in the months and weeks ahead. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) estimates his state is about two weeks behind New York, the state currently hardest hit by the coronavirus. Virginia's Northam predicted a surge of cases in May, while Bowser projected D.C.'s peak could come as late as June or July.

In Arlington, County Board Chair Libby Garvey tied the expected lack of equipment with the need for flattening the curve.

"For those that are worried about our capacity, worried about the PPE, worried about our healthcare people, please stay home," she said. "So we can stop the spread of this disease and keep it at a level that we can respond to it well."

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