What you should know about PPE amid the coronavirus outbreak

Personal Protective Face Masks

The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike any outbreak in human history, certainly in the modern world. While scientific and medical communities are still learning about the coronavirus as it proliferates, we do know that it’s spread primarily through human-to-human contact and infected droplets. As such, the public is becoming more informed about personal protective equipment (PPE), especially the types associated with COVID-19.

What PPE Does and How It’s Deployed

We’re of course familiar with the most common PPE worn by doctors, nurses and medical caregivers: disposable gloves, surgical masks, aprons, and gowns. But COVID-19’s high rate of transmission among the general public raises more specific questions about how PPE functions in advanced medical crises like the one we now face—and how they should be approached by private citizens who aren’t medical professionals.

PPE is designed to slow down the spread of viruses and infections by shielding the skin, face and respiratory passages from those pathogens. It doesn’t stop them outright, of course, but properly used PPE can be a helpful obstruction against viral illnesses. The approval and use of PPE are usually administered by federal governments and entities like the World Health Organization (WHO).

Different PPE for Different Conditions

The WHO issues documentation that outlines what strategies are most recommended for different illnesses and conditions, including the deployment of PPE. In the case of COVID-19, the WHO suggests “rational use” of PPE including “gloves, medical masks, goggles or a face shield, and gowns, as well as… (N95) respirators.. and aprons.” They also outline what both medical professionals and the general public should wear in given environments (inpatient and outpatient facilities, hospital entry points, the community), and break those categories down into more specific situations (waiting rooms, triage, public areas, and the home).

Understandably, doctors, nurses, caregivers, and other medical staffers have more extensive and specialized needs for PPE in a variety of contexts. An employee working in office administration doesn’t need quite the same setup as a physician doing the rounds—who, in turn, has a different PPE setup than a doctor performing functions like CPR, tracheotomies or other procedures.

Facing and Fixing a Crucial Shortage

One thing is known about PPE in the time of COVID-19: There’s not enough of it. Hospitals and clinics are facing a lack of protective gear, especially masks and respirators. The shortage is partially due to manufacturing issues that companies are currently addressing. But commonly shared misinformation and its effects—such as “panic buying” of important supplies—are contributing to the shortage as well.

The shortage is forcing medical professionals to reuse PPE items that are expressly intended for single use only—it’s against recommended usage to wash and reuse a disposable mask, for example, no matter how diligently it may be sterilized. But COVID-19’s accelerating infection is putting hospitals in an untenable situation with PPE, forcing both them and entitles like the Center for Disease Control to temporarily adjust their strategies to allow for re-usability.

Doctors and nurses are not just fighting for their patients’ lives; they’re exposing themselves to the risk of viral infection, for which PPE is their only barrier. That’s one reason the WHO specifically mentions the importance of rational use of PPE, especially among the public.

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