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Shortages improved during the fall but worsened in December

US PIRG Education Fund

WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after the coronavirus came to the United States, nursing homes are still dealing with shortages of masks, gowns and hand sanitizer that could help prevent further spread of COVID-19.

A new analysis by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group found that 8 percent of nursing homes nationwide as of Dec. 27 had a critical shortage of surgical-grade N95 masks, which are the best protection against spreading the virus. Additionally, 4 to 6 percent of nursing homes reported shortages in at least one other category of personal protective equipment (PPE):  surgical masks, eye protection, gowns or gloves. More than 3 percent reported shortages of hand sanitizer, although that product  is much more widely available now in grocery stores and online than it was last spring and summer.

“This is indefensible. Nursing home workers desperately need these supplies to take care of themselves, their patients and the broader community,” said Teresa Murray, U.S. PIRG Education Fund Consumer Watchdog.

While shortages of surgical masks, eye protection, gowns, gloves and hand sanitizer all declined throughout the fall months, the shortages increased as the number of cases surged in December. Another factor may have been the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, which require those administering shots to use PPE.

“We’re hearing from the Biden administration that the vaccine rollout will take time and we can expect another 100,000 deaths in the coming weeks,” said Murray. “Given the vulnerability of our parents and grandparents in nursing homes, more COVID-19 relief funding for nursing homes needs to be a top priority.”

President Joe Biden’s proposal to tackle COVID-19 includes $30 billion for boosting PPE production, and the president promised to invoke the Defense Production Act to help with PPE, which should have been done last spring. 

Research last fall by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group found that last August, 20 percent of nursing homes had dangerously low supplies of one or more types of PPE.

“It’s unacceptable 11 months into this pandemic that we have any shortages of PPE,” said  Murray. “Nursing home workers shouldn’t have to wear the same masks five days in a row or use garbage bags because they don’t have gowns. It’s long past time to fix this problem.”