Why Is There Still a PPE Shortage?

A health-care worker in Houston. Photo: Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images

Back in April, after weeks of doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers wearing trash bags for gowns and using takeout containers as face masks, President Trump declared victory over the personal-protective-equipment (PPE) shortage. Complaints about a lack of supplies, he said, were “fake news.” And by May, Trump said masks, gowns, gloves, and other necessities were in “tremendous supply to almost all places.”

Now it’s July, coronavirus cases are surging across the country, hospitals are reaching capacity in hot spots, and complaints about a lack of PPE continue. Four months after it became clear that the U.S. would need an unprecedented amount of medical equipment to see its way through the pandemic, it is still not available.

The surge is a big part of the story. On Wednesday, the U.S. saw a record number of new cases, topping 60,000 in a day for the first time. And the country’s total number of cases edged above 3 million less than a month after hitting 2 million. The virus, despite the president’s predictions, has not disappeared.

With the spike has come increased demand for PPE. One organization that donates PPE saw requests from Texas jump 11,000 percent in recent weeks, nurses across the country are being forced to reuse masks made for single use, and, with the reopening of schools looming, demand is only set to increase.

But increasing COVID-19 cases aren’t the only reason for the spike in demand. Unlike in April, when nearly the whole country was locked down, essential medical professionals are no longer the only people in need of PPE. Many dentists, specialists, and other private medical practices are now open to patients who had put off care during quarantine. And others that would be open aren’t, because they can’t find the PPE. All these businesses are now in the fight for equipment, which has some resorting to buying masks for $7 each online.

With more and more businesses opening across the country, masks, gloves, and face shields aren’t just in demand from medical professionals, either. Prisons, nursing homes, trucking companies, and the construction industry are also in need of PPE.

None of this was hard to foresee, which makes the present state of things so maddening. Why isn’t supply meeting demand four months after it became clear how essential PPE is to fighting this pandemic?

Critics point a finger at the White House. President Trump, they say, should already have used the Defense Production Act (DPA) to ensure the availability of more PPE. In the past week, the American Medical Association and multiple governors have said the White House should use the law to increase the supply of masks and gloves for medical workers. Joe Biden also put out a plan this week saying he would use the DPA to “direct U.S. companies to ramp up production of critical products” needed to combat the pandemic.

“A lot of people thought, once the alarm was sounded back in March, surely the federal government would fix this, but that hasn’t happened,” Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, told the Washington Post.

Naturally, the Trump administration remains in denial. Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Wednesday, “PPE, we hear, remains very strong.”

Some have also criticized the White House for not doing more to fix a mangled supply chain. The administration, they say, should have set up a centralized hub to handle coordination and distribution based on the severity of outbreaks. The Times reports that many in the U.S. who need PPE are still relying on “overseas manufacturers and fly-by-night middlemen who have jacked up prices sevenfold amid soaring global demand.” Meanwhile, domestic producers are at maximum capacity.

Last week, a group of medical-equipment companies wrote a letter to Congress saying they have for months been calling on the administration to create a centralized distribution hub for PPE. But “politics has gotten in the way of that,” they wrote.

Why Is There Still a PPE Shortage?