Right now, Americans can purchase nearly limitless quantities of masks, hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment. But this time last year, it was an entirely different story. Even hospitals and doctor’s offices were running out of PPE. The shortages almost certainly cost some health care workers their lives. COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic we face.
We need to be much better prepared next time — with ample stockpiles of PPE ready to distribute to areas in need.
Last spring, the virus laid bare the vulnerabilities in our health care supply chains. Prior to COVID-19, China supplied 90% of America’s medical masks and half of the world’s PPE. But China’s strict lockdowns shuttered factories in January and February, leaving America unable to acquire enough supplies to prepare for the coming surge of infections.
The shortages hit hospitals in disadvantaged communities the hardest.
These hospitals disproportionately serve older, sicker, minority patients who are more likely to be on Medicare and Medicaid — or uninsured entirely. These patients require more care and need to be readmitted more frequently.
As a result, these institutions operate on razor-thin margins and struggle to keep their doors open even in normal times. So they can’t always afford to keep months’ worth of PPE on hand.
Hospitals in wealthier urban and suburban neighborhoods, by contrast, often have storerooms full of supplies.
When doctors and nurses in disadvantaged hospitals lack PPE, it affects patient outcomes too. If providers don’t have adequate protection from an airborne virus, they’re more likely to contract the infection and pass it to patients — who were already at higher risk due to their incomes, ages and ethnicities.
It’s a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle.
Fortunately, there’s a way to break it — and potentially save thousands of lives in the inevitable next health crisis.
The supply challenge has been addressed. Domestic PPE manufacturing know-how and capacity means the next crisis can be met with masks and other critical PPE made here in America.
But matching supply with demand will require more effort.
Establishing a federal data sharing network would allow public health authorities and hospital administrators to track which facilities have adequate PPE stockpiles — and which don’t. No such network currently exists, which makes it difficult to know which hospitals and clinics are close to running out of supplies.
The Biden Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services can take action now to bridge these supply and demand gaps. HHS can start by conducting outreach to state health and emergency response agencies, informing them of CARES Act funds that can support state-level stockpiles. Pre-deploying more supplies locally would increase awareness and resilience during the next pandemic.
Congress should play a role as well by authorizing and funding the FDA’s ability to collect and share standardized information on state and local PPE and crucial medicines supplies. Such data sharing would help public-private partnerships disseminate supplies where they’re needed, when they’re needed — and re-route those supplies during localized emergencies.
Doctors and nurses should never have to reuse old PPE or worry about supply shortages, no matter what communities they serve. With the right planning, they won’t have to.
Dr. David Bray is inaugural director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center. He served as IT chief for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program from 2000-2005 and responded to 9/11, anthrax in 2001, West Nile Virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, monkeypox in 2003, and other outbreak events.