As the number of cases of COVID-19 in Maine climbs, and the need for testing increases, some health care providers say the state does not have enough protective equipment to meet the demand. It's a challenge that extends nationwide, with no easy solution.
Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, is the masks, eye shields, gowns and gloves that healthcare workers need to protect themselves while testing and treating patients for the new coronavirus. And Darcy Shargo, CEO of the Maine Primary Care Association, which represents the state's Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC), said there's not enough.
"Every conversation I have, this comes up as a barrier. And this is not just in FQHC's but across the board in the state. So I'd say right now, in terms of response, that is our biggest challenge."
The lack of an adequate supply of PPE, Shargo said, affects the state's ability to expand testing capacity. She said that she recently surveyed health centers to see whether they could become community testing sites if necessary. Several said they'd like to step up, "but to a point, all of them said, we cannot do this today because we do not have sufficient N95 masks, face shields, gowns, gloves, etcetera etcetera."
"This is a challenge in Maine. This is a challenge nationwide right now," said Maine Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Nirav Shah, speaking at a press briefing Monday.
The lack of supply is a global problem, caused by increased demand and a disruption in the supply chain as countries grapple with the pandemic. Shah said that Maine is doing what it can, including assessing existing stocks across the state and allocating as necessary. On Monday, he said, the state government distributed supplies to 60 health care facilities. And he expects additional supplies from the national stockpile.
"We were notified that our request of the federal equipment for additional protective equipment is going to be fulfilled. And the first delivery of that equipment is expected soon. That delivery will include a cache of gowns, gloves, face masks and face shields."
But President Donald Trump threw cold water on the hope that the federal supply will meet states' demand during a conference call with governors Monday. According to the New York Times, Trump told state leaders, "Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves." A spokesperson for Governor Janet Mills said that she's working to confirm the veracity of the president's remarks and pressing for the release of equipment from the federal stockpile to Maine.
Meanwhile, the immediate effects of the limited supplies on health systems in Maine appears to vary depending on size. John Porter is a spokesperson for MaineHealth, which includes nine local hospitals.
"We expect to have enough to meet our needs for the foreseeable future. Emphasis on ‘foreseeable.’"
Porter said MaineHealth was able to increase its stock of personal protective equipment before cases of COVID-19 were identified in the state.
"We also, at every hospital organization, have a stockpile of PPE as part of our pandemic response planning."
A spokesperson for Northern Light Health, which operates 10 hospitals, said they currently have enough protective equipment to care for patients and protect staff, and are diligently managing the use of supplies.
But managing supplies has proved challenging for Laurie Kane-Lewis of DFD Russell Medical Centers, which operate three federally qualified health centers in Androscoggin and Kennebec Counties. Lewis said every week, she has tried to replenish protective equipment, and every week, it's back-ordered.
"Even surgical masks are back-ordered at this point."
Lewis said the DFD Russell Centers’ ability to become a community testing site is not only hampered by the lack of personal protective equipment, but also by a lack of tests. Maine's supply is funneled from the U.S. CDC, which initially sent one kit with roughly 1,000 tests.
Lewis said when she asked the state CDC for some of those tests, "They said they could give us 20. That was as of last Friday. So I can't post on our website or our Facebook page and say we're a community testing site and say we only have 20 testing kits on hand."
Lewis said their patient base is 10,000.
Darcy Shargo of the Maine Primary Care Association said she thinks the state is doing its best with the current situation. With no clear end to the equipment shortage, she said, it underscores the importance that Mainers adhere to recommendations intended to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, which includes frequent hand-washing and social distancing.
Maine Public's Steve Mistler contributed to this report.
Originally published March 16, 2020 at