Mar 18, 2020 - Health

Multiple medical shortages threaten coronavirus response

Illustration of a first aid bag with moths flying out.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Experts and lawmakers are beginning to call for extraordinary measures to alleviate medical shortages that could cripple the U.S. response to the coronavirus.

Why it matters: These shortages affect both testing and treatment, and if they persist, could also thin the ranks of health care workers able to help treat coronavirus patients. And the only solution may be for the federal government to get involved.

Driving the news: Invoking the Defense Production Act was on a list of options included in a 100-page federal government coronavirus response plan, dated from Friday, reported on by the New York Times last night.

  • The law, passed in 1950, gives the president enormous power to force American manufacturers to produce critical supplies.

What they're saying: Some lawmakers at the federal and local level had already called for the federal government to increase its manufacturing capacity.

  • Mark Levin, chair of the New York City Council's health committee, tweeted yesterday that he's "BEGGING, PLEADING that the fed gov't mobilize production and distribution of medical supplies and equipment."
  • "I urge you to immediately exercise the powers authorized to you by the Defense Production Act (DPA) in order to address impending shortages of critical resources in response to the COVID-19 pandemic," Sen. Bob Mendendez wrote in a letter to President Trump yesterday.

Where it stands: The U.S. is likely to face several key shortages in even a moderate outbreak.

  • Labs will need more of some key ingredients for diagnostic tests, including RNA-extraction kits, reagents and swabs. Staying on top of testing is essential to ultimately controlling the outbreak.
  • States are already sounding the alarm over inadequate supplies of protective gear, such as masks, gloves and gowns, for health care workers.
  • "If we run out of those, we’re hosed. Because then doctors and nurses are going to have a choice between not caring for a sick patient, and putting themselves at risk," said Ashish Jha, the director of Harvard's Global Health Institute.
  • Ventilators to help patients breathe are also in short supply. We have about 62,000, and only a limited ability to tap other supplies.

Doctors in Italy are making difficult decisions every day about how to ration their limited supply of ventilators, the WSJ reports.

The Food and Drug Administration "is in close contact with [personal protective equipment] manufacturers to understand their supply capabilities during this outbreak. We have heard about challenges throughout the supply chain that are presently impacting the availability of PPE products, however, we are taking steps to mitigate shortages that healthcare facilities are already experiencing," the agency said in a statement.

The bottom line: “The worst case scenario in that case is we produce a lot of stuff we don’t end up needing...if we don’t do it, we have a lot of people who die unnecessarily," Jha said.

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