As hospitals and medical workers across the country man the front lines in the battle to control and treat novel coronavirus, a constant theme is the shortage of key safety and treatment supplies. Three such supplies are often talked about: personal protective equipment or PPEs, N95 masks and ventilators. Here is a brief look at those items.
Q. What is PPE?
A. Many health care workers wear several different kinds of personal protective equipment, or PPEs, in their jobs every day. This equipment is designed to keep them safe from infectious materials, and it is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q. What do doctors, nurses and other health care personnel wear?
A. Health care personnel are adhering to specific protocols when caring for patients with coronavirus infection, including the use of N95 respirator masks, gowns, gloves and eye protection. Different medical facilities have different approaches on how to put on and take off protective gear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that those wearing PPE should wash their hands before and after taking off the equipment.
Masks: Depending on the situation, health care professionals may wear N95 respirator masks or surgical masks. More on masks below.
Gowns: The CDC recommends the use of surgical gowns and surgical isolation gowns in situations like treating a highly contagious virus like the new coronavirus. These gowns are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and are rated for the levels of protection from liquids and the transfer of microorganisms and other particles. Surgical gowns are made to protect some parts of workers’ bodies more deliberately, like the front of the gown and the arms from the wrist to above the elbow. Isolation gowns have a higher level of protection for the entire gown, seams included. In some situations medical coveralls may also be used. They are designed to cover the whole body, including the back and lower legs.
Gloves: The CDC says that disposable patient examination gloves are appropriate for care of patients with the coronavirus. These gloves are the same ones normally used.
Eye protection: These can be disposable face shields or safety glasses with extensions to cover the sides of a medical worker’s eyes. The CDC recommends prioritizing eye protection during prolonged face-to-face contact with an infectious patient.
Q. What about coronavirus patients?
A. The CDC is recommending that patients with confirmed or possible coronavirus infection should wear a face mask or surgical mask when being evaluated medically. They also say that nonsterile, disposable patient gowns are appropriate. These are the same types of gowns which are used for routine patient care in hospitals.
Q. Who does not need PPE?
A. The CDC is not currently recommending that the general public use face masks or other forms of PPE. They recommend other preventive actions, like social distancing, washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough and staying home when sick.
Q. What are N95 masks?
A. Surgical masks and N95s are very much PPEs, but are broken out here for further explanation. Worldwide fear of the coronavirus led to a run on N95 masks, a model badly needed by medical personnel on the front lines of the pandemic but not as useful when it comes to regular folks looking to protect themselves.
Q. What is a surgical mask?
A. Loosefitting disposable device designed to be discarded after each patient encounter (commonly referred to as a face mask, though not all face masks are regulated as surgical masks).
Q. What does it do?
A. These masks are meant to help block drops, splashes, sprays and/or splatter that may contain germs or a virus from reaching the mouth and nose, if worn properly. They can reduce exposure of saliva and respiratory secretions to others.
Q. Are there any downsides to this type of mask?
A. These are not recommended by the CDC for protection against respiratory diseases, including coronavirus, as they do not provide its wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller, airborne particles.
Q. What is an N95 respirator?
A. This mask is a tightfitting disposable device that, when worn correctly, forms a seal around the nose and mouth to filter air before it is inhaled by its wearer. Minimal leakage occurs around the device’s edges when its user inhales.
Q. What does it do?
A. When used in health care, the N95 designation means the respirator blocks at least 95% of very small particles in the air that are transmitted by coughs, sneezes or during some medical procedures. The CDC does not recommend these types of masks for the public.
Q. Are there any downsides to this type of mask?
A. Even a properly fitted respirator does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death. The device is designed, ideally, to be used for a single patient encounter, but could also become unusable if it becomes wet or dirty, contaminated with bodily fluids from a patient or no longer forms an effective seal to the face. These masks are not resistant to oil.
Q. What is a ventilator?
A. A ventilator is breathing machine. It could be as simple as a flexible plastic bottle squeezed by hand or as complex as a machine controlled by a computer and powered by electricity or compressed gas. The large 1930s polio-era iron lungs are ventilators. Hospital ventilators today are about the size a microwave oven and often are on wheeled stands, with large monitors for medical workers to keep track of how a patient is responding to treatment. The federal government and state governments are working to avoid a shortage of ventilators should hospitals face a crush of patients in need of the lifesaving machines that help them breathe.
Q. How do they work?
A. Ventilators gently push air into a patient’s airways and lungs. These machines must manage this pressure so as to not cause any additional harm to a patient.
Q. How are they connected to a patient?
A. When a patient is on a ventilator they are intubated, which means a tube is placed in their mouth or nose. That means a patient can’t talk or eat regularly and might need medication to keep them calm and relaxed.
Q. How does the machine breathe for a person?
A. Ventilators can be set to be triggered by when a person tries to breathe or it can be set to breathe a certain number of times per minute.
Q. How do ventilators treat people with coronavirus?
A. People who have severe cases of COVID-19 can develop pneumonia and/or an acute respiratory distress syndrome where the lungs are not able to work properly fail. A ventilator is used to help them breath.
Q. Why is there a shortage?
A. According to The New York Times there are about 160,000 ventilators in hospitals around the country and the federal government has a stockpile of 12,700 for emergencies. If many, many people continue to get seriously ill from COVID-19, some experts predict there won’t be enough ventilators to help everyone.
Q. How much do they cost?
A. The machines themselves cost between $25,000 for a basic machine and $50,000 for the models used in hospital ICUs, according to The Washington Post. Ventilators used in hospitals also require staff to operate them.
Q. Is a ventilator a respirator?
A. No, the N95 mask is a respirator. These prevent a person from breathing in harmful substances.
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