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Update, 5:45 p.m. on March 19: After this story published the county’s leading public health officer Dr. Wilma Wooten admitted that there is in fact a shortage of basic protective equipment. “There is a shortage of supply with gloves, gowns and goggles,” she said. She also acknowledged that the county’s supply of surgical masks – which is down to roughly 70,000, she said – is running low. That is opposed to higher-quality, particle-filtering N95 masks. She says the county has 700,000 N95 masks, which is enough for the foreseeable future.
“Short supply.” “Critically low.” “There are no shortages.”
Hospital and public health department officials are providing mixed messages about the current state of basic hospital supplies – such as masks, gloves and gowns – in San Diego’s regional hospitals.
Dr. Nick Yphantides, the county’s chief medical officer, at a press conference on Wednesday said: “Right now, to answer your question matter of factly, there are no shortages. Everybody has what they need.”
But some of the county’s largest hospital networks, including Scripps Health and Sharp Healthcare, have a different message.
A spokesman for Scripps acknowledged the hospital is in “short supply” on protective equipment – especially N95 respirator masks, which filter airborne particles.
An email sent out to some employees Wednesday at Sharp described the system as “critically low” on gloves, masks and gowns.
John Cihomsky, a spokesman for Sharp said, “the critically low comment was referring to the local, national and global situation.” When pressed on whether it directly applied to Sharp’s hospitals, he said the network does indeed have a “short supply” of basic protective equipment.
Without the proper supplies, the novel coronavirus could spread faster among the region’s health care workers, putting them out of work and exacerbating any strain on the system’s ability to function as the outbreak worsens.
As the United States enters the beginning phase of the coronavirus outbreak, medical supplies are coming from two sources: manufacturers and strategic state and national stockpiles. Manufacturers – many of which are located in China – are extremely backed up on orders, said Dr. Eric McDonald, a public health officer who oversees epidemiology for the county.
A spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health – who declined to give their name in an exchange with the official communications department email address – claimed that supplies are flowing from the strategic national and state stockpiles into local hospitals. But local hospitals have rolled back their usage of N95 masks and also claim to be short on more basic supplies such as gloves and gowns – which both seem to indicate the flow of supplies is not keeping up with demand.
The state has a cache of some 21 million N95 masks, according to NBC Bay Area. The spokesperson acknowledged that the state also has a strategic store of gloves and gowns, but declined to comment on its size.
Some San Diego clinics are pleading for those who have supplies to donate them to medical workers, according to NBC 7.
McDonald told me that county health officers are coordinating with local hospitals “to look at critical supplies.”
“They will say, ‘This is our inventory, this what we’ve got, this is what we project to use, this is when we might run out,’ so that we collectively in the county know what’s going on,” he said.
I asked him when hospitals indeed might start running out of supplies. Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s leading public health officer, stepped in. She said that currently the county itself – which also keeps a much smaller strategic supply of equipment – has enough N95 masks to keep hospitals going for at least six weeks. (She acknowledged there are only enough for the next six weeks, based on evolving guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allow for the use of N95 masks to be limited when supply “cannot meet demand.”)
In regard to other more basic personal protective equipment, often referred to as PPE, she did acknowledge “an issue” with sufficient supplies.
But state public health officials – who are coordinating the response of local public heath departments – are sticking to different talking points. They say that national and state equipment stockpiles do include additional basic equipment such as gloves and regular surgical masks.
I asked the state public health spokesperson if the Department of Public Health is able to provide the full inventory of basic supplies being requested by county public health departments on behalf of their local hospitals.
“As of now, the state has been able to fulfill the supply requests,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
But nurses around the county have been taking to social media to say they don’t have the gear they need.
“If we don’t have the resources to keep ourselves safe, then we can’t keep you safe either. And that’s what’s scary. That’s what needs to change,” Megan Ucich, a nurse who works at three different health centers, told NBC 7.
A spokeswoman for UC San Diego Health Services wrote in an email, “UC San Diego Health does not have a shortage of PPE.” She did acknowledge, however, “masks of all kinds are in short supply,” worldwide.
A spokeswoman for Kaiser Permanente, which operates several medical centers throughout the county, declined to comment on whether local hospitals and medical centers have adequate supplies. She noted that Kaiser has “strong contingency plans” and is often able to move supplies between different facilities in its nationwide network.