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Critical supplies shortage hampers hospitals, health providers

Hospitals and health care providers don’t have enough of the critical supplies needed to protect doctors and nurses from the coronavirus, and governors say the Trump administration isn’t doing enough to help. 

Lawmakers in New Jersey, Washington state and Maryland say they have only received a fraction of the protective equipment they requested from a national stockpile of medical supplies managed by the federal government. 

Meanwhile, nurses, doctors and other health care workers all around the country are being told to ration the gear that protects them from the virus, raising questions about the risk posed to those on the front lines of the pandemic. 

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“There are folks who say that every night they take the mask home, they spray both sides with bleach and they hang it up to dry and they hope that's gonna work,” said Laura Wooster, associate executive director of public affairs at the American College of Emergency Physicians, a member organization of ER doctors. 

“So it's pretty bad.” 

The shortage of so-called personal protective equipment (PPE) could endanger health workers and weaken the coronavirus response in the U.S. Of top concern is the shortage of N95 respirators, which are viewed as more effective at blocking viruses than the looser-fitting surgical masks. 

"We have that constant exposure, and we need to be protected," said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) and a nurse at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. 

"If we get sick, we won't be able to take care of those who are sick." 

Hundreds of health workers across the country have been quarantined after exposure to the coronavirus, sidelining them for at least 14 days when they’re most needed. 

If protective equipment is used up without being replaced, that situation could become more widespread as the coronavirus outbreak worsens in the coming days and weeks. 

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To adapt to the shortages, health workers are reusing N95 respirators, buying face shields from Home Depot and using surgical masks that are viewed as less effective at blocking viruses.

Still, ER doctors tell Wooster they’re running low on the surgical masks, too.

As a result, governors are asking the Trump administration to tap into the Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies and protective equipment intended for use in public health emergencies. But they’re finding that only a fraction of their requests are fulfilled. 

“We're getting some distributions from the national stockpile. We got some stuff delivered yesterday. It's not nearly enough,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is also chairman of the National Governors Association. 

“We are working very hard to ramp those things up, but obviously we're counting on the federal government.” 

The federal government has appeared to shift responsibility back to the states. 

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has only granted partial requests for supplies in some cases, with a spokesperson telling The Hill the role of the stockpile is to “fill the gap temporarily until states and localities working with the private sector can respond to the state and local needs.” 

The stockpile is also short on supplies: it only has 10.5 million of the respirator masks, but HHS Secretary Alex Azar told Congress recently it needs at least 300 million. 

In Washington state, which is facing one of the biggest outbreaks in the country, Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington county warns of at least 17 positive tests after 300-person wedding The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by UAE - US records 1 million COVID-19 cases in a week; governors crack down Washington state issues sweeping restrictions to combat coronavirus surge MORE (D) told reporters Monday after participating in a call with President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE and other governors that his state needs more supplies than it has received from the federal government. 

“This is something we are very concerned about,” he said. 

“The federal stockpile has hundreds of thousands of personal protective equipment and has been responding to our orders, but we are going to have to increase our orders fairly significantly and we need that federal stockpile to fulfill our state’s stockpile.” 

In a letter from the Washington congressional delegation, lawmakers wrote that many health centers, nursing facilities and fire departments throughout the state have “either depleted their supply of PPE or will run out in a matter of days.”

“A lack of PPE threatens to further endanger the state's health care workforce, amplifying the public health crisis in Washington state,” reads the letter led by Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Trump, attorneys step up efforts to reverse election's outcome AOC, progressive Dems attack corporate greed during health care discussion MORE (D).

In New Jersey, officials have requested 2.8 million N95 respirator masks, but only received about 85,000. It received close to a quarter of the 864,000 surgical masks it requested. 

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Trump on Monday told governors in a call to “try getting it yourselves,” stunning state officials who have looked to the federal government for help in confronting an unprecedented public health crisis. 

Trump reiterated his comments in a press briefing Monday, saying states are able to get those products faster through their existing supply chains. 

However, hospitals and state officials say they’ve had trouble ordering products through their normal suppliers, as factories have been shut down in other countries that are also battling the coronavirus. 

Supply chains are also extremely strained due to tariffs on China, the main supplier of medical goods to the U.S.

While the Trump administration has recently taken some action to ease those tariffs, China and other countries are blocking exports of those products as they seek to combat the pandemic. 

While Trump said Monday the federal government has ordered more masks, it’s not clear when they will be available for health workers. Vice President Pence on Tuesday urged construction companies to donate their N95 respirators to hospitals, another sign of how dire the shortage is. 

The administration is also pushing for Congress to waive legal liability for manufacturers of the industrial version of the N95 respirators who don’t want to be sued if their products fail to protect against the coronavirus. That change would make more of those masks available, Pence has said. 

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Some lawmakers have urged the Trump administration to use his authority under the Defense Production Act of 1950 to direct the domestic production of necessary medical equipment. 

“This would ensure we have the materials we need at the ready, rather than wait for disruptions in the global supply chain to subside,” 57 House Democrats wrote in a letter to Trump last week. 

Trump told reporters Tuesday he is considering using that authority, but was noncommittal. 

“We studied it very closely two weeks ago. We'll make that decision very quickly if we need it,” Trump said.  

“We hope we don't need it. It's a big step." 

Reid Wilson contributed.