Not Just Masks: WHO Warns of Looming Shortages of PPE

The World Health Organization says tens of millions of medical masks, gloves, and goggles will be needed each month as healthcare professionals attempt to deal with the spread of COVID-19.

The World Health Organization is sounding the alarm about a growing shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the issue extends well beyond the much-publicized medical mask shortage.

This week the organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, MSc, PhD, said the lack of supplies undermines the entire global effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“We can’t stop COVID-19 without protecting health workers first,” Ghebreyesus said.

From the earliest days of the current coronavirus threat, news organizations featured videos of Chinese residents wearing facial masks on the street in hopes of protecting themselves from transmission of the virus. As the virus has spread, so too has demand for masks.

However, epidemiologists and other public health officials in the United States and elsewhere have repeatedly urged the public to avoid purchasing masks, noting that the masks don’t offer the general public meaningful protection from the virus. In a series of tweets and public appearances, United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH, has repeatedly asked the public to stop buying masks.

“They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” he wrote, in a February 29th tweet.

However, the WHO’s update this week makes clear that the dangerous lack of medical supplies is not limited to masks. Global supplies of gloves, respirators, goggles, face shields, medical gowns, and aprons are also increasingly under stress.

The WHO late last month put out guidelines for what it says are “rational and appropriate” use of PPE in health care organizations. They include eliminating the need for PPE in some instances by using telemedicine and restricting the number of workers who enter the rooms of patients with COVID-19.

The organization said its models suggest some 89 million medical masks will be needed each month to deal with the spread of COVID-19, along with 76 million examination gloves, and 1.6 million sets of goggles.

Ghebreyesus said meeting that demand will not only take restraint on the part of the general public, but also action on the part of governments and the medical supply industry.

“Without secure supply chains, the risk to healthcare workers around the world is real,” Ghebreyesus said. “Industry and governments must act quickly to boost supply, ease export restrictions and put measures in place to stop speculation and hoarding.”

With the shortages have come spikes in prices, the WHO said. Mask prices have grown six-fold, N95 respirators have tripled in costs, and the cost of gowns has doubled.

Ghebreyesus said medical supply companies will need to ramp up production by about 40% in order to meet demand. Governments could aid in this effort by creating incentives for companies to manufacture the equipment, he said.

For its part, US Department of Health and Human Services this week announced it will purchase 500 million N95 respirators over the coming 18 months to add to the nation’s Strategic National Stockpile.

Meanwhile, the WHO said it has sent PPE supplies to 47 countries so far, mostly to smaller countries in Africa and Asia.