Face masks with the N95 designation are approved to filter out the harmful particles in wildfire smoke. But for most people, masks like this one aren’t necessary, said a Treasure Valley environmental health expert. | Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman
The federal government has sent Idaho more than 600,000 pieces of personal protective equipment, like masks and gloves, and the supplies are being distributed this week, the Idaho Office of Emergency Management told the Statesman on Friday.
That is Idaho’s full allotment from the strategic national stockpile.
The office would not say how many of each kind of supply Idaho received — how many of the 600,000 items were N95 masks, for example.
“We are distributing the supplies throughout the state based upon a tiered system of need, providing the most supplies to those most in need,” said Janice Witherspoon, spokeswoman for the office. “We are processing requests for assistance and distributing the supplies under that tiered system.”
Witherspoon added that the state’s “data use agreement with the local hospital entities (says) we will not share information of individual or regional location rates of any materials.”
Personal protective equipment is used by front-line health care workers, first responders and others to protect themselves and patients.
Based on the statewide PPE inventory as of March 30, the national stockpile added about 20% to Idaho’s supply of all PPE.
The state has a real-time surveillance system to monitor how much personal protective equipment is available around the state, and how quickly it’s being used. The system tracks statewide inventory and “burn rates” — the number used per day — for things such as masks and gowns. The number fluctuates based on how fast health care organizations use and replenish the supply.
Idaho had about 3 million pieces of personal protective equipment as of 12:20 p.m. Monday, March 30. That included:
2 million gloves
650,513 surgical masks
144,245 N95 masks
20,071 face shields
6,666 pairs of goggles
The daily “burn rate” for those supplies varied. With some pieces of equipment, there was enough inventory to last 19 days (gowns). For others, the statewide inventory could last 236 days (gloves).
On March 30, front-line workers were using 625 of the N95 masks per day. During that time, health care workers tested about 80 to 100 of the highest-risk patients for COVID-19, according to state records. The number of lower-risk patients tested that day is unclear, but it likely was several hundred, based on testing patterns in late March.
N95 masks are important because they are capable of filtering tiny coronavirus particles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has loosened its recommendations for use of PPE, but even its current guidance says health care workers should dispose of N95 masks and get new ones after contact with a patient who has COVID-19, after doing certain procedures like a coronavirus test, and after other risky situations.
While the shortage of PPE has been widespread, local health care leaders have said some supplies are harder to find than others, and suppliers are charging higher prices for them.
That is true across the country. The situation makes it more challenging for health care providers to safely screen, test and care for patients during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Hospitals reported that widespread shortages of PPE put staff and patients at risk,” said a report on hospitals’ responses to COVID-19, released this month by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Hospitals reported that heavier use of PPE than normal was contributing to the shortage and that the lack of a robust supply chain was delaying or preventing them from restocking PPE needed to protect staff. Hospitals also expressed uncertainty about availability of PPE from federal and state sources and noted sharp increases in prices for PPE from some vendors.”
St. Luke’s Health System — the largest network of hospitals and clinics in Idaho — said Tuesday that it has received one shipment from the stockpile so far.
“St. Luke’s highest PPE priority are N95 masks and isolation gowns, which is consistent with health care organizations around the country,” said Adrian Wengert, a St. Luke’s vice president for supply chain.
Shortages of personal protective equipment like gowns and masks have “shifted the availability to global sources and at premium prices,” Wengert said.
Gowns cost eight times as much as usual and N95 masks are 10 times the usual price, but St. Luke’s has managed to get those items for lower prices “through our strategic sourcing efforts,” Wengert said. “So far, we’ve been able to adjust where needed. It continues to be a challenge that all health care providers are facing.”
This article first appeared in the Idaho Statesman. It is used with permission.