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Health care workers are running out of face masks. They’re asking people to donate.

Masks and respirators are designed to be worn only once, but some medical professionals are being asked to re-wear their gear.

A pharmacist holds a gray N95 respirator in her hand.
Facing a supply shortage, medical professionals are urging people to donate any face masks, respirators, and protective equipment they’ve stockpiled to local hospitals.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Update, March 31: There have been significant developments in the coronavirus pandemic since this story was last updated, and some details may no longer apply. For our most up-to-date coverage, visit our coronavirus hub. Click here for the CDC’s current public health guidance.

The world is experiencing a shortage of surgical masks and respirators. Countries around the globe are scrambling to bulk up their mask supplies to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and allow medical professionals to safely treat infected patients. It’s crucial for health care workers, doctors, and nurses on the front lines of the disease to have the proper protective gear to lower the risk of contracting Covid-19, but America’s mask supply is being so rapidly depleted that even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested homemade masks, like bandanas or scarves, “as a last resort” for health care providers in “settings where face masks are not available.”

Public health officials warned about a strain in the supply chain for masks and other equipment in late February, when the pandemic started to spread in the US, which prompted regular people to snatch up medical supplies. By hoarding masks and respirators, civilians have contributed to the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers. (The US government is also partly to blame for overwhelming the health care system by not taking fast enough action to test citizens.)

Hospitals across America are running out of supplies, and medical professionals online are urging the public to donate whatever they’ve stockpiled to local health care facilities. Masks and respirators are typically designed to be worn only once, but in the face of dwindling inventory, some health care providers are asked to re-wear their gear. Alarmed by the lack of protective equipment, doctors, nurses, and health workers are sharing anecdotes about the risk this brings to them and their patients, calling on people to donate what they can.

”Don’t hoard N95 masks. If you bought some already, donate them back to a local hospital,” Jeremy Faust, an emergency doctor, wrote on Twitter, adding that a “respected colleague” told him that their hospital was considering reusing N95 masks since they’re running out. Leah Tatebe, a doctor at Cook County Health in Illinois, posted a photo of one packaged N95 respirator writing, “This is my one N95 mask. I have been instructed to preserve it for up to 30 days by covering it with regular surgical masks which are also on critical shortage. The supply chain should not have crumbled.”

The CDC updated its guidelines for protective medical equipment use on March 10, as “the supply chain of respirators cannot meet demand,” according to its website. Instead of recommending health care workers to wear N95 respirators, which filter out 95 percent of airborne particles, less protective surgical masks are now “an acceptable alternative,” health officials said. On March 19, Vice President Mike Pence said that new legislation would ramp up mask production, promising tens of millions more to reach health care workers each month starting immediately. Yet, it’s unclear when these mandated supplies will actually be delivered to care providers; Bloomberg Law reported that it could take over 18 months for the White House’s order of 500 million respirators to be fully shipped over if they’re being manufactured in China.

Since February, it has been difficult for the average American to get their hands on masks in local pharmacies, health supply stores, and on Amazon — even when American health experts explicitly said, at the time when relatively few people were known to be infected, that healthy people didn’t need to wear them. People hoarded masks and respirators out of fear or shipped them to countries like China, Japan, or Italy for friends and family, where it was prohibitively expensive or just difficult to buy.

Expert recommendations about wearing masks in public, however, have changed as the US’s case count surpassed 14,000 by mid-March, with some Covid-19 patients being asymptomatic or only exhibiting mild symptoms. Shan Soe-Lin and Robert Hecht of the nonprofit Pharos Global Health Advisors published an op-ed in the Boston Globe on March 19 writing, “Masks work. There is widespread evidence from the field of occupational health, the SARS epidemic, and other outbreaks that wearing masks protects us from germs and interrupts the transmission of disease from sick to healthy people.” They suggested for the average person to cover their face with nonmedical masks when leaving the house, using accessories like bandanas or scarves.

So why is it so hard to produce new masks? The New York Times reported that China made half of the world’s masks before the outbreak, and while factory production has increased nearly twelvefold, the country has kept most of its inventory as it sought to control the virus. US mask manufacturers are also seeing unprecedented demand for masks, with Prestige Ameritech, the country’s biggest producer, aiming to make 1 million masks a day, compared to an average 250,000 before the pandemic.

Despite these efforts, the short-term future appears grim. Mark Parkinson, president of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, estimated during a press call on March 17 that 20 percent of suppliers won’t be able to provide more equipment for medical staff next week and that another 20 percent will run out of stock the week after, Roll Call reported. And unions representing health care workers, like National Nurses United, say they’re worried that frontline workers have been forced to reuse masks and wear less protective equipment.

Earlier this week, Pence also asked construction companies to donate their mask inventory, especially respirators, to local hospitals and “forgo making new orders.” The production teams behind some TV medical dramas, like Fox’s The Resident, ABC’s The Good Doctor, and Grey’s Anatomy spin-off Station 19, have donated boxes of masks, gloves, and gowns to local hospitals. At the community level, people are using grassroots organizing tactics to find and distribute unused protective gear and supplies to local facilities, Buzzfeed News reported. ProjectN95 is just one group facilitating mask donations, and other GoFundMe-powered groups are working to import masks from China. Americans are receiving aid from abroad, most notably from Taiwan, which pledged to donate 100,000 masks a week, and Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, who donated 1 million masks and 500,000 test kits.

We’re living in uncertain times, and it’s natural to feel somewhat helpless, especially while reading an article about how crucial medical supplies are running low. Still, there are actionable things you can do to help flatten the curve: Stay home if you’re able to. Cover your face when you have to go outside and limit your social interaction. Don’t hoard masks; donate them if you have an excess. Individual action matters at this point, and it can indirectly prevent the health care system from becoming more overwhelmed.

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