Is there an N95 respirator shortage in the US?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a lot of fear and tension to the general public. People worrying about their family and kids and stocking up on N95 masks, counterfeit N95 respirators being sold, prices for medical supplies going through the roof. But, the most concerning problem is an N95 respirator shortage, especially among health care providers.

N95 masks are the ideal type of protection for anyone who is in close proximity to an infected person. This mask is used primarily for people in high-risk situations, like people who work in the medical, surgical, and dental fields. Even if a practitioner isn't in a hospital attending coronavirus patients, they are still in situations where they can get infected a lot easier than most people, and need N95 masks. 

These types of respirators ensure full safety to its users. They are designed to filtrate at least 95% of all airborne particles in the air, making them optimal for protection against bioaerosols like viruses. N95 masks need to be regulated and approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This is the organization responsible for making recommendations and guidelines to prevent work-related injuries or illnesses in the US. 

During the pandemic, a lot of low-quality manufacturers started to sell disposable face masks marketing them as N95 respirators, but didn’t meet the NIOSH standards, and weren’t approved by them. Using these masks is a dangerous practice, especially among frontline workers. 

Storyline of the PPE shortage in the United States

The shortage of personal protective equipment was imminent since coronavirus cases started to increase in March. Since then, experts warned about the concern of a shortage in PPE, particularly the N95 respirator, a crucial piece of equipment for health care workers on the frontline of the pandemic. 

The Department of Health and Human Services stated back in March that the United States had about 1% of the estimated supplies needed to face the pandemic that was approaching. Around the same time, the World Health Organization was recommending to increase the production of medical supplies all around the world, because shortages were already starting to happen in some countries. 

The government invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950 (DPA) back in April, to prevent the country from running out of supplies. This law provides authorization to direct private companies to prioritize the national or domestic supply of medical products necessary to face the pandemic. Companies, like 3M primarily, increased their production of N95 respirators.

Months after the DPA was invoked, experts were still concerned that this measure was taken too late in the game, and that the production wouldn’t be enough to meet the needs of the health care field. Shortages started in some states, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a statement urging other industries to use other types of respiratory protection to ensure N95 masks for health care workers. 

A survey done by the National Nurses Union revealed that 85% of nurses said they had been asked to reuse PPE, and according to the New York Times, there’s a private clinic in Arizona that’s been treating COVID-19 patients without any N95 masks. 

These shortages can be explained by two main factors. The early shutdown and measures to increase medical supplies were taken too late, and they never adjusted to meet the high demand that was approaching the country. On the other hand, many states started to reopen, increasing the demand for N95 masks, and at the same time, increasing the number of cases again, which will make matters worse in the future. 

Several months after invoking the DPA, the American Medical Association and the National Nurses United Organization called for the administration to take more aggressive measures regarding the PPE shortage. Experts have also been incentivizing hospitals and other medical facilities to stock up on these medical supplies that will last for about three months. 

 

It’s important to look at other types of health care workers outside of hospitals or private clinics. Medical and dental offices are also lacking the proper equipment to treat their patients, even if they’re not coming to be treated for COVID-19 related symptoms. Anyone can be an asymptomatic carrier, and people in high-risk professions are also facing the pandemic directly. 

In June, the American Medical Association (AMA) urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to take into consideration doctor’s offices and other types of medical or dental practices when it comes to N95 masks and other types of PPE. 

Where are we today?

Seven months since the start of the emergency, and logistical problems regarding PPE and tests are still haunting workers at the frontline. Although not as bad as it was during the spring, hospitals are still reporting shortages in all sorts of PPE, including N95 respirators and disposable isolation gowns, even thermometers. 

As flu season approaches, experts don’t expect these issues to get any better. In fact, they predict shortages will only get worse. Shortages in medical institutes usually start with masks, including the N95 respirator, and then isolation gowns and the specialized beds to put patients on their bellies.  

Medical practitioners and experts in hospital administration have predicted that the shortages will continue all throughout 2021, and might even reach 2022. 

 

As always, we recommend our readers to stay safe and healthy. Practice social distancing, and make sure to use your face mask. They’re very easy to buy online, and you can purchase them while they’re still in stock at a reasonable price. 

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