Hospitals are stockpiling supplies amid fears a coronavirus-related mask shortage could endanger healthcare providers

Hospitals are stockpiling supplies amid fears a coronavirus-related mask shortage could endanger healthcare providers

mask respirator coronavirus new york city subway

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"You don't need to run out and get your face mask but you should run out and get your flu vaccine," NYU's Dr. Jennifer Lighter told Business Insider.

  • In the face of the coronavirus outbreak, the US medical community is bracing for a potential shortage in crucial equipment, including protective N95 respirator masks.
  • Medical suppliers like Henry Schein and Medline told Business Insider that the coronavirus outbreak has already spiked demand for certain medical products.
  • Henry Schein's website is currently running a notice about "disruptions to orders for certain infection products in various markets."
  • Montefiore Medical System's infectious disease expert Dr. Theresa Madaline said that a run on certain crucial medical supplies could "mean that at some point we will not have enough for our health care workers."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus crisis has fueled fears of a shortage of key protective medical devices, namely the specialized N95 respirator masks that are needed to protect health workers treating infectious patients.

Dr. Theresa Madaline, Montefiore Health System's healthcare epidemiologist and the assistant professor of infectious diseases at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told Business Insider that reports of a dearth of N95 masks are particularly concerning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that medical employees working with coronavirus patients wear N95s, specifically.

"N95 masks are specialized respirator masks that are meant for specific conditions," Madaline told Business Insider. "These are for infections where you have very teeny tiny particles that would not be captured via regular surgical mask."

Any disruptions in the distribution of supplies like the N95 - whether caused by increased demand on the part of hospitals and the public, or snags in the supply chain - could pose a risk to medical practitioners who rely on certain pieces of protective equipment.


Medical experts say a number of factors could lead to a shortage of crucial medical equipment, including disruptions to the supply chain and product stockpiling by medical institutions and the public. And regardless of whether the coronavirus continues to spread, a lack of certain pieces of equipment could put doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers at risk.

Madaline told Business Insider that she is concerned about reports of needless accumulation and even outright theft when it comes to key protective medical equipment.

"There is a finite supply, meaning the manufacturer can only make so many," Madaline said. "If people grab them faster than they can produce them, that will mean that at some point we will not have enough for our health care workers."

N95 facial mask respirator

Pichi Chuang/Reuters

A man wears a N95 facial mask in 2013.

'Too soon to say what the long-term effects will be'

The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese officials, attempting to stop the spread of the disease, are snapping up medical masks from factories that supply global medical equipment firms, thinning out the number of products that are being shipped globally.


Medical supplier Henry Schein's website now includes a notice for consumers in the United States saying that, "Due to the coronavirus outbreak, we are experiencing higher than normal demand globally for infection control products such as masks, goggles, and face shields, among other items."

The alert said that the medical supplier is working with both its "manufacturing and supply chain partners, as well as global health organizations including the Pandemic Supply Chain Network, the World Health Organization, the Chinese Ministry of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, to address shortages as they occur." That being said, consumers should anticipate "disruptions to orders for certain infection products in various markets."

A Henry Schein spokesperson followed up with Business Insider saying that the company has "seen a spike in demand for personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns, but that's limited by the tight supply of these products."

The spokesperson pointed to a LinkedIn post from Henry Schein CEO Stan Bergman, who wrote about his hopes for the medical community's response to the coronavirus.

"It's too soon to say what the long-term effects will be on business from the outbreak. Henry Schein reports our Q4 financial results later this month, and we'll have a better sense by then of the impact of the outbreak," the spokesperson said.


A Medline spokesperson told Business Insider that China's "numerous efforts" to contain the virus were resulting in "some impact on manufacturing operations in that country."

"We may see a potential reduction in capacity or delayed shipments for personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the industry," the Medline spokesperson told Business Insider. "Our top priority is to ensure current Medline customers have the essential supplies they need to protect both patients and staff. We are actively working on options to increase production in other areas of our global supply chain, while diligently monitoring the situation in China."

n95 mask

Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

A worker holds a N95 mask.

'Healthcare workers are at risk'

Dr. Jon Mark Hirshon, a professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology at University of Maryland School of Medicine and Medical Center, told Business Insider that healthcare employees are always especially at risk during a pandemic.

"It's critically important that we protect our healthcare workers," Hirshon, who is also a board member of the American College of Emergency Physicians advocacy group, said. "Our healthcare workers are at risk from many things, including violence from patients, exposure to diseases, stuff like that. So we have to pay attention to that and make sure that we protect the people who are the frontline providers for many patients."


Madaline said that the coronavirus outbreak has spread anxiety among both the public and the medical community.

"There is a lot of fear about this virus of both in the community, but also a lot of chatter within healthcare that people are buying or in many cases taking large stock of the masks," Madaline said.

The knowledge that a shortage could jeopardize health workers on the frontlines of a pandemic has prompted many medical institutions to take steps to ensure that they will not be caught unprepared.

Dr. Kathleen Jordan, an infectious disease specialist who serves as the chief medical officer at San Francisco's Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, spoke to Business Insider about the reaction of the medical community during the Ebola outbreak. She said that during the outbreak from 2014 to 2016, she wasn't aware of any hospitals that hadn't "stocked up on personal protective equipment," although she "can't speak for everyone."

"It definitely made us improve our stockpiling of personal protective equipment," Jordan said, speaking about the Ebola outbreak. "At the time there were shortages of personal protective equipment. So manufacturing caught up. So everybody sort of stockpiled."


Amy Compton-Phillips, the chief clinical officer at the Providence network of hospitals and clinics, told Business Insider that they have "not noticed any impediment to getting the supplies that we need." But that doesn't mean they aren't "surge planning" for the months ahead.

A Providence hospital near Seattle took on the first reported coronavirus patient in the United States.

"We're doing things like making sure we have the supplies available," Compton-Phillips said. "A lot of the personal protective equipment is manufactured in China. And so if we have disruptions in our supply chain, will we be able to have the masks and the gowns and the face shields that we need to keep people healthy? And so we're working with our suppliers to ensure the supply."

"We'd much rather be ready and waste time planning than we would to scramble after the fact," she added.

'You don't need to run out and get your face mask'

But it's not just institutions like hospitals and clinics that appear keen to buy up protective gear in the face of the outbreak. Online searches indicate that members of the public, alarmed by media reports about the coronavirus, may be getting in on the act as well.


Data provider M Science found that online sales of "dust, medical, and respirator masks" spiked through January 29, 2020, surpassing such sales during the avian flu crisis of 2017 and the flu season of 2018.

The problem with that is, according to medical experts, the public neither has the need for specialized protective gear like N95s, nor the ability to use it effectively. For the untrained, it's not as simple as slapping on a N95 mask. Madaline said that such a mask must be "fit-tested," meaning fitted to a person's face and secured by a trained individual, to ensure that "no particles are getting through."

In other words, hoarding N95s is one thing, but actually being able to use them in an effective manner outside of a specialized medical environment is another thing entirely. And these specific masks aren't just necessary for treating coronavirus patients; medical providers also must wear these now in-demand devices when treating tuberculosis.

What's more, individuals concerned about the coronavirus in the United States truly have a more statistically deadly disease to contend with in their own backyards.

"What's more of a danger to people in the United States is the flu right now," Dr. Jennifer Lighter, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases and hospital epidemiology at NYU Langone Health, told Business Insider. "Only half of the population is vaccinated. You don't need to run out and get your face mask but you should run out and get your flu vaccine."


Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting.

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