Demand Jumps for Protective Equipment as Ebola Cases Spur Hospitals Into Action
At manufacturing plants in North Carolina, Mexico and Honduras, the machines are standing ready.
The plants, which make gowns and other protective equipment that medical staff need to treat Ebola patients, have hired extra workers to make sure the machines can run all night.
Some already are.
“We are not at our maximum capacity yet,” said Judson Boothe, the senior director of products supply for Halyard Health, a unit of Kimberly-Clark that operates the plants (it is soon to be spun off from its parent). “But we’re getting closer every day,” he said, adding that Halyard did hit its cap during the SARS outbreak.
Major manufacturers of personal protective equipment say they have already experienced a significant spike in demand for their products, as hospitals across the country brace for potential new cases of Ebola, which has already killed more than 4,500 people.
The Cleveland Clinic, part of a health system that is monitoring five nurses who were on the same flight as a nurse who contracted Ebola from Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who died in a Dallas hospital, says it has seen slight delays in shipments of new supplies.
"We don’t have everything we need yet, but I have not heard from our leadership or anyone that there’s a panic that we’re not getting what we need,” said Eileen Sheil, a spokeswoman for the clinic.
Mr. Boothe says that orders for personal protective products have risen more than 30 percent above normal levels for this time of year, when medical workers typically prepare for flu season. Halyard also packages kits of fluid-resistant products, including a gown, gloves, a shoe covering and a face mask, that sell for about $10 to $12 each.
DuPont, which makes body suits from Tychem or Tyvek, two types of fluid-resistant material, says it has tripled production for products that can be used to protect from Ebola. And Medline, a manufacturer and distributor of health care supplies, has recently begun selling specialized kits of equipment, at the request of its clients, that are designed with Ebola in mind.
Demand for specialized kits is up tenfold in the past month, according to a Medline spokeswoman, Kathryn Cummings, while demand for gowns and other protective gear has grown 25 percent in the last few weeks.
“We receive 30 to 40 calls a day inquiring about our kits,” said Dante Tisci, the president of one of Medline’s manufacturing divisions.
After the death of Mr. Duncan this month, Mr. Tisci said, many of those calls have come from Texas, although Medline has received more inquiries from the East Coast recently.
“I would definitely say that the demand during this specific pandemic has been much larger than in the past,” he said.
Manufacturers like Halyard and Medline typically sell their products to hospitals, or third-party distributors, and not directly to consumers.
“We are definitely open to that market if that market presents itself,” Mr. Tisci said, adding that almost all of the increase in demand had so far come from institutional clients.
While consumers are not rushing to pick up industrial-grade protective equipment from companies like Halyard, they may be looking for smaller ways to stay safe. Rite Aid, which sells masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and similar products, has seen a slight increase in demand.
“Store shelves have ample inventory, and we have access to additional inventory if necessary,” said Ashley Flower, a company spokeswoman. “We continue to closely monitor the situation and are prepared to respond as needed.”
Walmart and the Walgreen Company declined to comment on whether they were seeing any increase in sales. CVS/Caremark did not respond to requests for comment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines for what medical workers should wear to treat Ebola patients, like fluid-resistant gowns that shield them from splashes of blood, feces and other fluids that transmit the virus.
But removing the equipment presents its own challenges. Officials said that a nurse who treated Mr. Duncan and tested positive for Ebola may have been infected in the process of removing her protective gear.
Mr. Tisci said that Medline would include use instructions only at the request of its customers, who provide the detailed directions themselves.
We’re not telling our customers the proper way to gown and degown,” Mr. Tisci said. “A lot of our customers are really just following the C.D.C. guidelines.”
The C.D.C. says that medical personnel should wear fluid-resistant gowns and other protection that gives them 360-degree coverage. Hospitals around the country have had to quickly figure out which suits work best for them, and train their employees accordingly.
“The features of the actual personal protective equipment are the fluid resistance, but there’s also the ease of getting into it and more importantly out of it correctly,” said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, the director of hospital epidemiology and infection control at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “I don’t know if saying that it’s difficult is right, except to say that you have to be trained and practiced.”
Dr. Maragakis said that the staff at Johns Hopkins had been practicing getting into and out of gowns using red paint to show whether or not they were contaminating themselves when taking the gowns off. (The Cleveland Clinic uses chocolate syrup, Ms. Sheil said.) Dr. Maragakis said that the hospital decided to use fluid-resistant gowns instead of Tyvek suits after finding that the suits were more difficult to remove without contamination.
“How a jumpsuit fits depends a lot on size much more than a gown does,” she said. “If you’re a taller person and the shoulders are on tightly, it’s harder to get your arm out of that sleeve.”
Suits typically have a zipper and often provide head-to-toe coverage, or at least shoulder-to-feet. Gowns typically cover shoulders to knees, and could provide the kind of coverage Ebola requires through overlapping layers and a tie. Gowns, like the fluid-resistant versions sold by Halyard and others, are often used in the operating room or in the trauma department when dealing with open wounds, Mr. Boothe said.
For now, manufacturers of personal protective equipment say they can handle any increase in demand. Medline said that it could produce up to one million fluid-resistant “coveralls” now, as the World Health Organization predicts that Ebola could reach 10,000 new cases a week by December.
“We just don’t know at this point how far it will progress, and how fast,” Mr. Boothe said.
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