WASHINGTON — The quality of personal protective gear for U.S. medical workers battling the coronavirus crisis remains inadequate, the head of the nation's largest organization of emergency room doctors said Thursday, suggesting it is roughly comparable to that of nations like Italy and others that have seen surging infection rates.
The warning from Dr. William Jaquis, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, or ACEP, comes after some leaders, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have indicated that the supply of masks, gloves and goggles is adequate in the near term.
Jaquis said in an interview that the claim is true only because hospitals have so sharply lowered their standards in coping with the crisis.
Doctors, nurses and other medical staff have been forced repeatedly to reuse masks, goggles and gloves, Jaquis said, while wearing standard surgical gowns instead of Tyvek hazmat suits that would better repel fluids and germs.
Jaquis, who praised Cuomo for doing a "great job," nevertheless warned that U.S. standards are more on par with those of countries like Italy, which has seen a huge spike in infections, as opposed to South Korea, where doctors are outfitted in more sophisticated protective gear and testing rates of the population are far higher.
"When he [Cuomo] says, 'We have enough,' he is saying we are no longer completely without," Jaquis said.
Cuomo said at his briefing that there might have been some "distribution" issues over the past few days, but he contended that there is no shortage at the moment.
Earlier Thursday, NBC News reported that DuPont is expediting delivery of the Tyvek suits, which are assembled primarily in Asia. Yet it's unclear whether the production level will meet hospital demand, underscoring the need for "a longer-term, sustainable approach," Jaquis said.
ACEP, which represents more than 38,000 emergency physicians, medical residents and medical students nationwide, has been calling for policy changes, including galvanizing U.S. industry through the 1950 Defense Production Act.
The nation's leading medical professionals, including the American Medical Association and ACEP, are calling on President Donald Trump to fully implement the Defense Production Act. That would allow him to compel U.S. manufacturers to produce enough gear and ventilators to meet hospitals' demand and to prioritize outbreak hot spots so states would not compete with one another on the open market for scarce resources.
"There's no reason to hold back," said Steve Arnoff, ACEP's spokesman.
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The list of drastic measures doctors and nurses are taking to protect themselves, according to ACEP, includes bleaching and reusing masks meant for one-time use, while front desk workers sew ribbons on them after the elastic straps have worn off.
Others are wearing rain gear or masks typically used by construction workers, and some have inquired about scuba masks. Doctors are also looking into microwaving gear or using ultraviolet light to sterilize it, as well as do-it-yourself mask construction.
Meanwhile, photos of nurses forced to wear garbage bags while tending patients have flooded social media, drawing outrage.
Resources the Trump administration is drawing on in the national stockpile, including protective gear and ventilators, will eventually dwindle, Jaquis said.
"The best solution is more production and a distribution system that meets the needs of people putting themselves at risk across the country," he said.