Washington health officials short on supplies to fight virus

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Washington state health officials are fighting the new coronavirus on two fronts—containment, while trying to ensure hospitals can care for people who become sick, and to date, they have not received the equipment they need, officials said.

“We’re still working on slowing the spread but also trying to plan on how to expand beyond the walls of our current health care system,” Dr. Kathy Lofy, state health officer, said.

The increase in people visiting clinics with respiratory symptoms is straining the states supply of personal protective gear worn by healthcare workers, officials said.

The federal government has sent Washington state tens of thousands of respirators, gowns, gloves and other protective gear for healthcare providers, but it’s not enough, said Clark Halvorson, Assistant Secretary of Health for Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response.

Washington state continues to lead the nation in the number of positive COVID-19 cases—more than 560 by Friday— and the number of deaths: 37. The number of deaths in the U.S. was 51 on Saturday. As of Friday, Idaho reported its first confirmed case while the governor declared a state of emergency. Oregon reported at least 30 cases.

Gov. Jay Inslee has prohibited gatherings and events of more than 250 people across all of Washington in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. He also closed all K-12 private and public schools until April 24.

“We’re doing this for the health of all Washingtonians,” he said Friday.

Health officials look at the health system in terms of “space, staff and stuff,” Lofy said, meaning they have to count bed space, consider their staffing limitations and tally the ventilators and medication.

Officials continue to hold meetings to assess the number of intensive care unit beds available in state hospitals and whether they can add more, as well as other needs, she said.

State health officials have received two shipments of personal protective equipment from federal agencies: 595,940 N-95 respirators; 508,206 surgical masks; 63,688 face shields; 97,850 surgical gowns; and 240,376 gloves, according to the governor’s office.

But it’s not enough, they said.

“The Department of Health appreciates our federal partner’s efforts to meet our needs for PPE throughout this response through the Strategic National Stockpile,” Halvorson said. “This support however falls far short of meeting the needs of our medical system, first responders, public health, and care facilities—forcing us to prioritize requests based on greatest need.”

Due to the demands on the protective equipment, Halvorson said the health department is partnering with the Emergency Management Division and Department of Enterprise Services to identify other sources for the equipment.

“This is a national problem as well,” he said. “It is critical that the federal government work with supplies to increase production of PPE to ensure our health care providers have the protection they need to safely provide care.”

Testing for the disease is also a concern.

More than 6,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 in Washington, but they need to do more, Lofy said.

“We’re doing everything we can to increase testing capacity,” she said.

While more test kits are becoming available for the labs, she said they’re starting to run short on some of the materials to take the samples from people, including the swabs and the liquid the swabs go in.

Testing is available through four labs in Washington state and the turn-around time was 24 to 48 hours, officials said. The public health lab had the capacity to test 300 people per day. The University of Washington could handle 2,200 tests a day with a 24-hour turn-around.

Two private companies, LabCorp and Quest, were also conducting test. Quest could do about 1,250 per day while LabCorp could handle several hundred and were working to expand their capacity to thousands per day.