Local health care professionals such as physician Sherryl Reed are seeing firsthand how demand for masks and other personal protective equipment is beginning to outpace supply as the coronavirus pandemic ramps up.
“There is a shortage of masks,” said Reed, an internal medicine specialist at Graves Gilbert Clinic. “Regular surgical masks are in short supply, and they’re not as protective as the N95 masks that have to be used for COVID-19.”
Help should be on the way, with much of it coming from a prominent local manufacturer best known for producing underwear.
Fruit of the Loom, a Bowling Green-based clothing manufacturer and subsidiary of the Berkshire Hathaway holding company, is among a group of textile and apparel companies working to produce masks for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The consortium of companies includes Parkdale Mills America and HanesBrands, both based in North Carolina, and others.
President Donald Trump said last weekend that Hanes would begin making masks, with a goal of forming a consortium of companies that would produce up to 6 million masks a week.
Whitney Scott, director of corporate communications for Fruit of the Loom, confirmed Thursday that the Bowling Green company is participating in the consortium, although she had few specifics.
“The project is currently in the preliminary planning stage,” Scott said in an email. “We are working with our necessary partners and agencies to start production as soon as possible, but we do not have an exact date.”
Scott said Fruit of the Loom will not be producing the N95 masks that are tight-fitting and filter out at least 95 percent of small and large airborne particles.
“We were provided with specifications from the HHS,” Scott said. “The masks will be FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)-approved but are not made to N95 specifications. The masks are not recommended for use in surgical settings or where significant exposure to bodily liquid or other hazardous fluids may be expected.”
Scott said Fruit of the Loom will make the masks for “as long as necessary,” and she said the company will set up production areas that conform to social distancing requirements needed to slow the spread of the disease.
Masks and other PPEs are sorely needed in the battle against COVID-19, Reed said.
Reed has already treated one local COVID-19 patient, and she said: “They’re extremely sick. This can be a very serious illness. We think it’s much more contagious than other respiratory diseases.”
As a result, Reed and others in the Graves Gilbert Clinic hospitalist team are taking extra precautions.
In addition to wearing their own masks and other protection, Reed said doctors are requiring more patients to don masks.
“If someone comes to see me and they have a fever, we put them in a mask,” she said. “We’re trying to prevent exposure.”
With the number of coronavirus cases on the rise in Kentucky, reaching 248 on Thursday, Reed said it’s important to prepare so that Bowling Green’s two hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.
She said steps taken by Gov. Andy Beshear, including mandating that hospitals cease elective procedures, has helped The Medical Center and TriStar Greenview Regional Hospital maintain a manageable patient load.
“The census at both hospitals is fairly low,” Reed said. “We need to try to keep it that way in case things start ramping up.”
Dennis Chaney, executive director of ancillary services at Med Center Health, confirmed that trend, saying: “We have seen a drop in our census. I think that’s a direct correlation to the governor’s executive orders limiting what sorts of health services can be provided.”
Despite the drop in the census, Chaney said that Med Center Health is taking steps to expand its critical care capacity.
“The floor above our emergency room will now be strictly for COVID-19 patients,” Chaney said. “When it was built, the vision was for it to handle surge capacity.”
Greenview Marketing and Communications Specialist Andria McGregor said that hospital is also taking steps to help it handle a possible influx of patients.
“While we have the supplies and equipment we need at this time, we are doing everything possible to secure products, as the worldwide shortage of PPE, including masks, face shields and gowns, is a reality that we are addressing with realistic, workable solutions,” McGregor said in an email.
Both Chaney and Reed said precautions such as social distancing and good hygiene, while maybe viewed as extreme by some, are the best weapons against the disease.
“I think everybody’s hope is that in a few weeks from now we’ll say we overprepared,” Reed said. “As a medical provider, I want us to be overprepared.”
– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdaily news.com.