While there has been–correctly–a lot of attention paid to the inadequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical personnel, if we’re serious about reopening the country safely*, we need to massively increase our supply of non-medical PPE and related equipment. Right now, we simply don’t have enough.
What prompted this post is an excellent op-ed by an emergency doctor who argues that we could use over-the-counter pulse oximeters, which can easily identify low blood oxygen levels (silent hypoxia), to determine which COVID-19 patients are in danger of requiring ventilation. By identifying them earlier, we might be able to turn around many severe cases of COVID-19.
I don’t disagree with the op-ed at all (it seems like a good idea!), but there’s a problem: it’s nearly impossible to find an over-the-counter pulse oximeter, at least in the D.C. area.
Due to a depressing twist of fate, Sunday, I had to find a pulse oximeter for a relative for reasons completely unrelated to COVID-19 (people are still getting sick with other illnesses). I visited eighteen pharmacies, four in Virginia and fourteen in D.C., before I found one–the last one–pulse oximeter in a D.C. pharmacy. As correct as this strategy is, we simply don’t have enough pulse oximeters to adopt it.
If you’ve been sentient for the last few weeks, that last sentence probably sounds familiar. If we’re to reopen, we obviously need more testing capacity. But we also need ‘non-medical PPE’ and other equipment, which includes items like cloth masks, cleaning solutions, hand sanitizer, and gloves (it’s hard to find dishwashing gloves, never mind disposable latex gloves). But the Trump administration hasn’t used the legal mechanisms it has to make more of these items–and we won’t get enough without invoking the Defense Production Act (at least short term). How do we make a few billion cloth masks without federal direction? How do we distribute with some semblance of intelligence those masks without the same?
I don’t know if it’s a lack of direction or manufacturing capacity (or some of both), but people will avoid working–and consuming–if they can’t do it safely. And the Trump administration isn’t doing what needs to be done to make that happen.
*I’ll write about this later this week, but there’s no reason to believe that Republicans aren’t fine with a lot of people needlessly dying from COVID-19 to help businesses and the wealthy. After all, they’ve been doing that in every arena, from occupational safety to environmental protection, for the last forty years. It’s what they do.