Dr. Nick Yphantides, San Diego County’s chief medical officer, attends a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Dr. Nick Yphantides, San Diego County’s chief medical officer, attends a press conference about the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

County officials who are coordinating the regional response to a global pandemic and hospitals are now in agreement: San Diego is facing a “shortage” of basic protective equipment, such as gloves, gowns, goggles and basic surgical masks.

Such equipment can help protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus among health care workers, who are in close contact with patients exhibiting symptoms. If more health care workers become exposed to the virus and are forced out of work, it could greatly limit the ability of local hospitals to manage the outbreak.

In a press conference Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said initial projections showed that more than half of Californians – roughly 25.5 million – would be infected with the novel coronavirus over an eight-week period. Such a high infection rate, over such a short number of weeks, could massively overwhelm hospitals.

Sharp Healthcare and Scripps Health, two of the largest hospital networks in San Diego, both told Voice of San Diego Wednesday they were in “short supply” on basic protective equipment.

But at the same time, county officials were sticking to a different story.

Right now … there are no shortages,” said Dr. Nick Yphantides, the county’s chief medical officer.

When pressed about this disconnect at a press conference Thursday, Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s chief public health officer, admitted there is a problem with the supply of basic protective equipment. “There is a shortage of supply with gloves, gowns and goggles,” she said.

Wooten also acknowledged that regular surgical masks are running low. She said the county currently has around 70,000 that it can distribute to local hospitals.

Surgical masks are different than N95 particle-filtering masks, which also need to be used for some procedures related to the novel coronavirus. Wooten said there is no shortage of N95 masks, of which the county currently has around 700,000.  (The county only has enough N95 masks based on evolving guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allow for them to be used in more limited situations when supply may not meet demand.)

Wooten would not say just how dire the shortage is in regard to gloves, gowns and goggles.

“I don’t have any other answers or numbers for you,” she said.

Hospitals are not totally out of gloves and other protective equipment. It is just unclear how long their current supply will last.

Currently medical supplies are coming from two different sources: manufacturers and state and national stockpiles. Orders are currently backed up weeks with manufacturers, many of which are in China.

“As of now, the state has been able to fulfill the supply requests,” said a spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health who declined to be named. But that’s distinctly different than what county officials are saying.

They say they have made requests to the state for equipment and the state is filling those requests on a “priority basis.” County public health officers are essentially acting as a go-between, placing orders on behalf of local hospitals to state officials.

Newsom said the federal government pledged to send equipment from the national stockpile to California. Newsom said those supplies would arrive in a warehouse in Sacramento, but he did not say when.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.