The COVID-19 pandemic put extreme pressure on public healthcare around the world. While pushing hospitals and health care professionals to the limit, it caused a global scramble for medical equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) products. Shortages of critical supplies caused the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue Emergency Use Authorizations (EAUs) for medical supplies and PPE in 2020.
Although the PPE supply stabilized throughout the pandemic, manufacturers and suppliers had to respond swiftly to meet global demands. The shortage of COVID-19 supplies demonstrates the limitations in medical device supply and PPE production. It also exposed issues with the global supply chains, as countries around the world experienced difficulties in sourcing equipment.
PPE manufacturers and suppliers are continuing to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. While vaccination distribution is one of the primary focuses at present, the experience of the pandemic may change how preparations are made for emergencies in the future.
Importance of PPE in a Pandemic
Healthcare workers use PPE daily to help protect themselves and their patients from bacteria, diseases, and infections. During pandemics and severe outbreaks, PPE becomes even more critical to minimize the spread as it needs to be worn by different groups of the population, not just those in the healthcare industry.
During a pandemic, PPE misuse or failure can have severe consequences. Where PPE is often used as a precaution, it is an absolute necessity throughout a pandemic. Without the right equipment, healthcare workers and their patients are at risk. Health professionals are more vulnerable than others due to their prolonged exposure to ill patients. Not only do they encounter more sick people, but the exposure levels mean that their viral load is generally a lot higher than the average person so they’re at more risk of experiencing debilitating or fatal infections.
Several types of essential PPE have been used throughout the pandemic by healthcare professionals and members of the regular population. Some of the most critical equipment includes:
Face masks were some of the most sought-after PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the respiratory symptoms and the way the virus spreads. Surgical masks and N95 respirators were in high demand as they can reduce the spread of droplets from the mouth and nose during coughing and sneezing.
Due to the shortage of masks during 2020, the FDA approved KN95 masks as a short-term solution. KN95s are similar to the U.S.-made N95 masks, but they’re manufactured in China. The U.S. government was forced to find alternate suppliers to make up for the deficit.
Face shields are often used as protection from impact hazards. They are not as effective as masks in protecting against COVID-19 and preventing the spread of airborne germs. However, they help protect your eyes when used in combination with a face mask. They are common during medical procedures and can extend the life of a mask. The demand for face shields grew by over 300% in 2020.
Gloves were in short supply during the pandemic. With evidence of the virus being present on certain materials for several hours after initial contact, safety gloves became critical PPE. Popular safety gloves include those made of latex, pure nitrile, nitrile-vinyl blend, and vinyl. For healthcare workers, latex or nitrile gloves provide the best protection.
Medical gowns are standard PPE used in routine medical procedures daily. They reduce the transmission of potentially hazardous materials that could harm patients with compromised immune systems. Gowns form part of a larger-scale infection-control plan within a medical facility.
Due to increased safety precautions and the high volume of COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic, hospitals experienced medical gown shortages. There are four different grades of medical gowns recognized by the FDA:
- Level 1 – Minimal Risk
- Level 2 – Low Risk
- Level 3 – Moderate Risk
- Level 4 – High Risk
Hand hygiene protocols quickly became one of the primary focuses during the pandemic. In the absence of soap and warm water, people were encouraged to disinfect their hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer with an alcohol content of between 60% and 95%. Hand sanitizer sales grew by 600% throughout 2020.
How COVID-19 Affected PPE and the Supply Chain
Although the sudden surges in demand for PPE worldwide played a significant role in equipment shortages, other factors were also highly influential. From the pandemic’s early beginnings in China, the supply chain for PPE was severely compromised.
Before the pandemic, close to half of the world’s supply of protective face masks was manufactured in China. As the origin of the virus, China reduced the volume of mask and mask component exports to other parts of the world. Many non-Chinese mask manufacturers source production materials from Chinese suppliers, so they couldn’t meet demand in their regions.
In the United States, the FDA, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) worked together to ensure the USA could create its own PPE supply. For example, U.S. mask manufacturers such as 3M and Honeywell significantly increased their mask production rate to help meet demand.
3M manufacturing facilities worked at full capacity at various stages throughout 2020, doubling production rates. In total, they made 2 billion respirators, which was three times more than they manufactured in 2019.
PPE Manufacturers and Suppliers Response
The response to the demand for PPE has been definitive but straightforward. Manufacturers have made considerable efforts to increase the production of essential equipment. In some cases, the production of non-essential materials was halted to accommodate emergency manufacturing of PPE. Non-medical manufacturers worked with medical device organizations to help combat shortages.
3D printing was considered a solution, but it was thought that these products might not provide the level of protection needed for FDA approval.
PPE suppliers partnered with government agencies to increase order volumes to the U.S. Industrial Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) members worked alongside the federal government and successfully ordered an additional 500 million respirators. The FDA issued EUAs to reduce barriers for importing equipment, expediting the supply increase.
Source PPE From a Reputable Supplier
If you require PPE for personal or commercial use, ensure that you source the equipment from a reputable supplier. At ICU Production Inc., we supply a range of quality PPE, including gloves, masks, face shields, medical gowns, sanitizer, and children’s PPE. All of our PPE is thoroughly tested, and FDA approved, ensuring you and your employees stay safe. Visit our website today and browse our range of products.