This is an N95 mask at Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Right now, while officials at Hartford HealthCare say they have enough N95 masks that there won't have to be multiple use, providers say different. JOE AMON / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC RADIO
This is an N95 mask at Saint Francis Hospital & Medical Center. JOE AMON / CONNECTICUT PUBLIC RADIO

A friend and colleague, a fellow physician and pediatrician, called in tears last night. She had just finished a 24-hour shift followed by a day of home-schooling her young child. She was not distraught from exhaustion (she’s used to that) nor from fear for her own personal safety. No, she called to share her deep fears about the safety of her family, her community and her country. At the forefront of her mind was the fear that she was contributing to the exponential rise in cases of the novel coronavirus.

She confessed: “I’m so scared. The way things are going, we healthcare professionals will be the source of the spread of this virus.”

Why does she have this fear? We need to ration masks.

We don’t have enough personal protective equipment, also called PPE.

Our precious, but quickly depleting supply of masks, gowns, gloves, and face shields protects not only frontline medical providers from contracting COVID-19 (so that we can continue giving needed medical care), but they also protect our patients. Personal protective equipment is fundamental to preventing the spread of disease. It’s been demonstrated to be a key protective factor in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in places like Singapore and Hong Kong.

But U.S. hospital supplies of PPE are running dangerously low. Even here, in Connecticut, some health systems could run out of PPE by this weekend.

We need high quality PPE that meets CDC requirements. While donations and hand-sewn solutions are appreciated, the concern is that viruses can easily make their way through expired material or hand-sewn masks. This could cause harm by creating a false sense of security, and healthcare workers could unknowingly add to the spread of COVID-19.

There is a solution. We need to implement it now.

We need a centralized, all-hands-on-deck, federally-coordinated response to increase domestic manufacturing of CDC-level PPE.

The power to authorize that response lies in the hands of President Trump. He has invoked but not yet enacted the federal Defense Production Act, which would compel U.S. manufacturers to produce items necessary for the national defense, such as PPE. This act would also establish mechanisms for the fair distribution of these items and mitigate price-gouging and hoarding. However, President Trump has failed to utilize the full power of this act. Instead he has waffled, and asked private industry to merely “volunteer” their services to produce PPE.

Reliance on a piecemeal volunteer response will not be enough to meet our PPE need. It will not be enough to protect frontline healthcare workers. We need a complete mobilization of the entire U.S. manufacturing sector to meet the grave challenge before us. Otherwise lives will be needlessly lost.

There is some good news: Connecticut’s Senator Chris Murphy, together with Hawaii’s Senator Brian Schatz, have introduced the Medical Supply Chain Emergency Act, which would achieve the same ends as the Defense Production Act. If implemented, this act would allow federal management of the supply chain and would direct the distribution of resources efficiently and equitably to the hospitals and frontline healthcare workers who need them now.

What if the President continues to delay enactment of the federal Defense Production Act? Then, as citizens, we must act. What can we do?

First, go to the website www.GetUsPPE.org and learn more about PPE. If you agree, please sign the petition that is directed to President Trump and ask him to use the full powers of the Defense Production Act.  

Second, ask your family and friends across the U.S. to call and email their U.S. Senators and Congress members today to pass the Medical Supply Chain Emergency Act.

As medical professionals on the frontlines of this war against COVID-19, we are thankful to you for doing your part to help by staying home. Please also help us to secure the PPE we need. Please help to protect healthcare workers so that we can work to protect you.

And finally, a message to President Trump: please do your part. Please use your authority to protect us. Please enact the Defense Production Act.

Julia Rosenberg MD and Kiki Kennedy MD are physicians in New Haven.

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