On February 26th, the Department or Health and Human Services issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) seeking to purchase 500 million disposable respirators, the white hospital masks it has become common to see people wearing in airports and grocery stores as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread.
When they were in-stock, Amazon sold these (in a package of 8) for $33.99, roughly $4.25 each. Using that math, the government is seeking to purchase roughly $2 billion of respirators.
Here’s the thing though, the masks are kind of in short supply now. The RFP issued by the offers suppliers the flexibility to deliver the masks they contract to supply over the next 18 months.
On one hand, that makes little sense. There is a critical demand now. Will that demand still exist in December of 2021?
On the other hand, maybe this is a sign the government does not believe this pandemic is going to disappear anytime soon?
A report issued last week stated that despite efforts to stockpile respirators, the government currently has fewer than 35 million on hand. Some estimates place expected demand at 3.5 billion units.
Healthcare workers in Tacoma, Washington have been asked to keep their disposable masks in sealed bags, pockets or on hooks outside patient rooms so that they can be reused all day long.
In nearby Seattle, one hospital system has set up its own makeshift respirator and face shield assembly line using over-the-counter items parts purchased from home improvement and craft stores.
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Nurses in Boston, Massachusetts have been purchasing racquetball glasses to use in place of safety goggles.
In New York, a dialysis center will soon resort to using bandannas in place of masks.
It is noteworthy that New York City will soon record its 4000th confirmed case.
So far, just over 71,000 Americans have been tested, out of a population upwards of 327 million. By comparison, South Korea has a population of approximately 51 million people and has performed more than 270,000 tests already. Not only do Americans not know how terrible things are going to get, there is really no way to know how terrible things are right now.
That may be changing soon.
The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has developed a working test for antibodies related to the COVID-19 virus. The current RNA test looks for the presence of viral genes in a nose or throat swab. This is time consuming and labor intensive and is only a sign of an active infection.
The new screening is an antibody test which, since antibodies stay in the body even after a disease has been overcome, would be an accurate way to test if the person currently has or ever had the virus. By measuring for these antibodies across a broad section of the population, a much more accurate estimate can be made of the infection rate.
Most importantly, the testing can easily be scaled-up so a lab could process thousands of samples per day.
This virus got the jump on us, and quickly exposed the shortfalls in our supply chains, testing procedures, and healthcare system in general. But we are fighting back. And with each new test and each potential treatment or vaccine, we gain back some of that ground. Eventually, we will overtake the virus, and the infection and mortality rates will begin to decline instead of progress.
Until then, wear your masks if you have them, and don’t forget to wash your hands!