• Personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages are a global problem
  • Redistributing PPE helps reduce the number of hospitalized COVID patients
  • To truly fix the PPE problem, fix the global supply chain

As the COVID-19 pandemic escalates, health care workers are growing increasingly concerned about low supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE includes common hospital supplies such as masks, gloves, goggles and face shields—all of which protect health care workers from getting sick so they can continue to treat patients.

"Using PPE is like flattening the curve or a way to socially isolate in situations where you cannot," says Shuhan He, MD, emergency medicine doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, and associate director of digital growth strategy, Strategic Alliance Initiative, for the Center for Innovation in Digital Healthcare. Dr. He recently launched a collaboration with colleagues from multiple institutions called #GetUsPPE, a nonprofit organization that aims to coordinate efforts to aid the PPE shortage.

A National Problem

Dr. He explains that while large academic medical centers may be well-stocked with protective equipment, other health care institutions may not have as much on hand to support their workers. A worldwide equipment shortage exposes everyone to risk while also putting pressure on the health care system.

"If other places do not have PPE protection, that will fundamentally affect us here at Mass General," Dr. He said. "If a small nursing home or a homeless shelter does not PPE, COVID-19 will spread there, those patients will get sick and we will see them at Mass General."

This is a global supply chain issue that can be solved by allocating PPE evenly throughout communities. With this strategy, Dr. He says it can significantly decrease the burden on hospitals.

Three-Step Solution

Dr. He suggests a Three-step Solution to fixing the problem:

Phase One: Redistributing Excess PPE

While hospitals have strict guidelines for PPE—such as fit tests and approved suppliers—other stockpiles of PPE are often new, in perfectly good condition and can be allocated to places that do not operate under strict guidelines, such as nursing homes. This will help stop the spread of coronavirus and decrease the number of patients that end up in hospitals, ultimately reducing the need for hospital-grade PPE.

Phase Two: Domestic Manufacturing

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) released standardized plans for PPE, so that more manufacturers can create materials. Health care facilities will still make their own judgments about PPE, but a 3D-printed face shield could certainly be useful to a place that has none.

"It's actually an opportunity for domestic manufacturing and jobs in this country," says Dr. He. "The other nice thing about domestic distributed manufacturing is that it's not a bunch of people congregating in one factory spreading COVID-19."

Phase Three: Creating New Suppliers

"If we go in and just purchase a lot more PPE, it's the toilet paper problem all over again," says Dr. He. Just like toilet paper hoarding, if some areas horde PPE, it will mean that other areas won't have any. To solve this, #GetUsPPE is teaching new suppliers how to make PPE. They're working without scientific manufacturing facilities and other suppliers that don't traditionally make PPE, even though they are equipped to do it with the right specifications.

"One of the things we're learning is that manufacturers are really nervous about making money off this thing. They want to do the right thing," says Dr. He.

The problem is that when you make donations, it's hard to be a sustainable donor because you lose money. But if companies can sell PPE, they can make a real impact.

"If you have a Gucci mask and a Nike mask, it actually helps out supply chain," says Dr. He. "It means that people are not buying medical supplies for trips to the grocery store. They're wearing their Nike or Boston Red Sox masks."

In turn, this relieves pressure on the supply chain and ultimately enables for hospitals to get the PPE they need to continue to take care of sick patients.