Apr 3, 2020 - Health

The push to multiply limited medical supplies

Illustration of latex gloves multiplication math problem.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Health care workers and the federal government are scrambling to stretch limited supplies of medical equipment.

Why it matters: We can’t manufacture enough medical masks or ventilators in time to meet the enormous surge in demand that's expected to hit in mid-April. The next-best thing is trying to make what we have last as long as possible.

As it became clear that medical supply shortages would be a problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released strategies for stretching mask supplies, which included reusing masks or, in truly desperate times, using bandanas and scarves as substitutes.

  • The Trump administration has drastically loosened regulations on medical supplies, expanding the kinds of masks health care workers can use and speeding up the importation process for medical supplies.
  • The administration is working to acquire 100,000 ventilators by the end of June, but most states are expected to have already experienced the worst of their outbreaks by then.

What's next: States, hospitals and the federal government are trying to make existing supplies last while they desperately try to find more equipment.

  • The administration is airlifting in millions of masks, gloves and face shields, mostly from Asia.
  • And yesterday it announced that it’s delivering hundreds of thousands of hoarded masks and gloves that were confiscated.
  • The administration announced yesterday that it’s using additional authority under the Defense Production Act to speed up ventilator production.
  • But Politico reported yesterday that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials told the House Oversight Committee this week that there are only 9,500 ventilators in the Strategic National Stockpile, and only 3,200 more will become available by the week of April 13.

On the ground, the effort is even more intense.

  • Doctors in New York are already thinking about how to decide which patients will receive limited ventilator supplies, the New York Times reports. Some hospitals are experimenting with putting more than one patient on one ventilator — an unproven method.
  • And then there’s the bidding war: New York state is paying up to 15 times the normal price for medical equipment, amidst unprecedented demand, ProPublica reports.

Yes, but: All of this may be too late.

Go deeper