GPs shopping for face masks at Bunnings – how long until aged care providers face shortages of PPEs?

Published on

Providers are facing the possibility of mass shortfalls in Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for staff, despite Government promises to ensure the availability of PPEs to aged care services.

One provider tells us that as soon as it became evident that coronavirus was a threat, they tried to place an order for more PPEs – only to be told there would a 26-week wait.

Providers had already taken the responsible action of stocking up on PPEs ahead of flu season – due to start next month – but they only have enough in stock for a typical winter.

The spread of the coronavirus means staff will be demanding a constant supply – and using them at any sign of a cough or sniffle.

The usual three-month supply is likely to be gone in six weeks.

Providers can’t just order more either.

The Department of Health has confirmed that no PPE is currently produced domestically.

“The Commonwealth sources PPE from an in-country supplier who sources product from a number of overseas manufacturers. There are a number of [other]in-country suppliers, all of whom rely on overseas manufacturers,” their spokesperson said.

“As part of the contingency measures, Government is looking to alternative suppliers to build the NMS [national mask stockpile]capability and capacity.”

Ironically, China – specifically Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak – is the world’s main manufacturer of medical masks.

But even the world’s most populous country can’t manufacture enough to meet its own current demand – around 20 million masks a day compared to domestic demand for 50 to 60 million a day.

Its output of N95 respirators, which provide more protection, is only 200,000 a day.

Illegitimate manufacturers and distributors are already trying to cash in on the global demand – last month, China confiscated over 31 million counterfeit face masks alone.

So where does leave providers and their staff?

The Government announced on Sunday that it had secured an extra 54 million surgical masks, P2 and N95 respirators for the National Medical Stockpile to help protect medical and aged care staff.

“We will continue to work to secure additional masks to ensure the National Medical Stockpile remains well stocked, and Australia has enough personal protective equipment to support our medical professionals as the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds. This includes boosting domestic manufacturing capability and capacity,” Health Minister Greg Hunt (pictured above right, with Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy left) said.

But will this be enough if the outbreak proves to be as widespread as some predict?

In late January, the Government released the first tranche of 1.125 million surgical masks and 27,200 P2/N95 respirators for general practice and community pharmacy from the Stockpile, but these were rationed at one box (50 masks) per practice or pharmacy.

GPs have told the ABC that these masks have been too slow to find their way to clinics and other suppliers are sold out – with some doctors even heading to hardware stores seeking supplies.

The sector’s leaders had raised the issue at last Friday’s Aged Care COVID-19 Preparedness Forum – and the Government had acknowledged the importance of supplying PPEs to providers.

But our understanding is that hospitals and doctors will be prioritised for PPEs before aged care facilities.

And if staff don’t have the equipment to protect themselves while they care for residents, will they come in to work?