OC hospitals and emergency workers are “depleted” of face masks and other protective equipment to fight coronavirus, county emergency medical officials warned in a daily update Monday, as many hospitals cancel non-essential services and prepare for a surge of coronavirus patients in the coming days and weeks.
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The update included a list of “DEPLETED RESOURCES” among hospitals and other emergency medical responders: N95 masks that haven’t expired, gloves, gowns, adult and child surgical masks, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, eye protection, thermometers, and ventilators.
It comes as state and federal officials, as well as private companies, seek to ramp up production of masks amid a severe nationwide shortage and concerns that hospitals will run out of masks amid a projected wave of severe coronavirus cases.
In a sign of how low supplies have gotten, Orange County officials started distributing expired N95 face masks – whose federal health approval was revoked in 2014 – as a “last resort.”
“These masks should be used as a last resort after all other supplies have been exhausted,” county health officials wrote in a separate bulletin Monday to emergency medical organizations throughout Orange County.
That advice appeared to be consistent with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says non-expired masks should be used first. That federal advice says users of expired masks “should be notified before their use and the importance of inspection and user seal checks should be reemphasized.”
The bulletin did not say how many expired masks were being distributed as back-ups, but it reportedly is around 90,000 or 95,000 in total in Orange County.
The move comes as officials scramble to get critical protective supplies – like masks, gloves, gowns, hand sanitizer, and ventilators – ahead of a projected wave of coronavirus hospitalizations in the coming weeks that’s expected to strain – if not overwhelm – the local hospital system.
“There is an OVERWHELMING shortage of resources nationwide,” officials with Orange County’s emergency medical services office wrote in their Monday daily update, which included the word “overwhelming” in all-caps.
“Since our last report on Friday, we received 2 State shipments of masks, mostly for healthcare but some for non-healthcare. We have NOT received anything else in the last week as the State is partially fulfilling our orders or not at all. No swabs, no test kits, no rubbing alcohol, no gloves, no gown, no thermometers, no goggles, no face shields. Lastly, there is no ETA on the Grainger order.”
County health officials have asked emergency medical organizations to continue requesting supplies so the county can evaluate needs.
At one of the county’s largest hospitals – UCI Medical Center in Orange – doctors say they need more crucial supplies and protective equipment, Voice of OC reported earlier Monday.
Physicians at the UC Irvine Medical Center — who spoke to Voice of OC on the condition of anonymity over the weekend — say they’re being forced to reuse special respiratory masks and other protective garments while possibly being exposed to people who may be infected with coronavirus but don’t have symptoms.
“The best available epidemiological data suggests that the United States is currently 7-10 days behind the scope and scale of COVID-19 seen in the Lombardy region of Italy, meaning that we are likely on the precipice of potentially overwhelming and catastrophic strain on our health care system,” resident physicians in the hospital’s anesthesiology department wrote in a March 17 letter emailed to department heads.
In a written statement, hospital spokesman John Murray said the medical center has already canceled or postponed “non-urgent surgical cases and clinic visits,” and that “this directive was announced to medical center staff and physicians on March 17.”
Meanwhile, a network of volunteers has emerged in Orange County to create hand-sewn face masks for first responders, amid the shortage. And companies like Home Depot reportedly have been donating their full supplies of N95 masks for hospitals and emergency responders to use.
Volunteers have formed at least three groups in OC focused on sewing masks, according to Mohammed Aly, an attorney and advocate for homeless people.
“These efforts arose spontaneously this week, and volunteers have been using Facebook to share materials, patterns, and infographics, and arrange pickups and drop-offs. It’s been inspiring to witness these volunteers using their sewing skills to fight back against the pandemic,” Aly said.
“The masks may provide a limited amount of protection, although the real need is for hospitals to have enough N-95 masks,” Aly said.
In their bulletin Monday to emergency responders, county officials said they were distributing the expired masks amid the current “scarce supply,” and after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval to use expired masks that were previously approved.
“Due to the current circumstances, [the county] is releasing these masks to be used as a simple physical barrier mask akin to a simple surgical mask (not a surgical respirator),” the county bulletin states.
“Users must understand that the masks cannot be used as N-95 masks or respirators, and must accept any potential risk associated with unproven devices.”
The nationwide shortage of face masks and ventilators comes as the United States faces one of the worst pandemics since the 1918 Spanish flu killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, more than were killed in World War I and II combined.
If OC does run out of masks, hospital staff and other first responders would be working without protective equipment, which experts say would spread the virus much more quickly among essential workers.
The more that the general public maintains social distancing, the less the hospital system will be overwhelmed, according to public health experts.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.