‘Critical Shortage Everywhere’ of Personal Protective Equipment

A group of Birmingham physician moms hosted a donation drive this weekend to collect protective clothing for medical providers. (Source: Mary Scott Hodgin, WBHM)

Like a lot of places these days, the Homewood Public Library is closed. But on Saturday, Dr. Theresa Northern was sitting out front with large cardboard boxes, awaiting donations of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Northern is part of a Birmingham group for physician moms, which has organized donation drives the past two weekends.

“We’ve gotten a lot of gloves and some masks as well,” Northern said.

The group is specifically requesting N95 masks, or respirators, which have special filters that can help protect against the coronavirus. Other types of PPE include face shields and isolation gowns.

A Critical Shortage

Northern, who is a physician at UAB Hospital, said there is a growing need for this kind of clothing, especially for the medical providers and emergency responders who are directly interacting with patients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19. The problem is that there is not enough of it.

“It is a critical shortage everywhere,” said Julie Cobb, with Jefferson County’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Division.

Officials with UAB Hospital say they have been short on PPE for weeks. And Cobb said it is the same for rural providers and smaller hospitals such as East Alabama Medical Center, where five deaths due to COVID-19 were reported this weekend.

The supply shortage is two-fold, caused by both an increase in global demand for these products and a delay in production due to the spread of the coronavirus.

Jefferson County started collecting PPE donations last week at the Christian Service Mission, but Cobb said they have not collected many items.

“It has not been very successful because there are just not a lot of entities with this type of PPE,” she said.

Cobb said medical providers are trying to conserve the supplies they have left. She said hospitals are now treating N95 masks like controlled substance drugs, kept on a shelf and requiring a two-person sign off. Providers are also re-using supplies when possible, and they’re reserving high level protective gear for the workers at highest risk of contracting COVID-19.

Cobb said they are searching for alternatives.

“It’s literally just like, you know we’re so used to doing everything on a computer and doing all of our charting and doing electronic medical records,” she said. “Well this is like, all the power’s gone and we’re having to go back to a pencil and piece of paper.”

Plan B

Cobb said new manufacturers are starting to make PPE and there is a national effort to increase supply. And in recent days, a growing number of community members have dusted off their sewing machines to stitch up handmade cloth masks.

More than 4,000 people have joined the Facebook group Bham Face Masks. The grassroots group said it has received and filled thousands of requests from local clinics, hospitals and shelters. Birmingham-based wedding dress designer Heidi Elnora has also started designing and making masks.

Most of these homemade masks are made of cotton and elastic and some include a filter. They do not replace the N95 masks, but they offer at least some level of protection for people who are not on the front lines.

Northern, with the physician moms’ group, said the cloth masks are not ideal. But she said the coronavirus is forcing everyone, including health care providers, to adapt.

“It changes the way you operate,” she said. “Because you have to sort of, you’re thinking both about what is the right thing to do, and what can we do.”

Northern said one thing everyone can do is help lessen the demand for these products by staying home as much as possible.