More than 130 Australian businesses have responded to an urgent call to dramatically increase the manufacture of masks, gowns and gloves, as doctors report some staff are making extraordinary efforts to conserve stocks.
The federal government has assured medical personnel that stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) are sufficient to deal with the immediate crisis posed by Covid-19.
New stocks were released from national emergency medical stock, and the Guardian understands the Department of Industry has summoned a special unit to look into PPE supplies. Soldiers were also sent to Victorian medical provider Med-Con to help with production as company tries to double supply surgical masks.
Last week the government issued a request for any company who might be able to produce PPE to come forward.
The request sought to map Australia’s full capacity to produce PPE and identify companies whose ability to manufacture it was not immediately apparent.
The Industry Department said more than 130 companies had responded so far. The ultimate goal is “to significantly increase production of PPE products,” the department said.
Companies are being asked to detail how they can help produce surgical gowns, gloves, goggles, hand sanitizer, clinical waste bags, waste bag closures, blood spill kits and fluids, mask fit test kits, or thermometers.
Industry Minister Karen Andrews said the government was moving quickly to secure supplies of PPE and expand domestic production.
“So many companies are pitching in to help – whether it’s speeding up manufacturing, looking to change what they produce, or even just connecting with each other to ensure that they have what they need,” Andrews told the Guardian.
“It’s a tall order, but our fighting spirit and Australian ingenuity will get us through this and come out stronger on the other side.”
Earlier this month, the World Health Organization urged all countries to increase production of PPE by at least 40% and remove export restrictions that limit global supply.
“Without secure supply chains, the risk to healthcare workers around the world is real,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Industry and governments must act quickly to boost supply, ease export restrictions and put in place measures to stop speculation and hoarding.”
Despite early actions by the Australian government, the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners have all warned of difficulties in obtaining PPE across the healthcare sector.
Sydney surgeon Ken Loi, chairman of the RACS NSW state committee, said medical staff were taking care to keep stocks of PPE. Law said the PPE requirements were unprecedented.
“We know there are shortages, they are working on it,” Loi told the Guardian. “We are working with the government to supply more.”
Loi said he heard reports that medical personnel had to reuse face masks. This practice is discouraged when dealing with suspected cases of Covid-19.
“I’m certainly hearing from some of my GP colleagues that they have to, but it depends on the patient being screened. I think people are now much more selective about how they view patients,” he said.
“Whether we have to reuse it is resource-based, and I believe the government is working on how we secure more supply.”
Chris Moy, chair of the AMA in South Australia, said the initial release of 20million masks from the national stockpile “wasn’t even enough”. He said PPE shortages were being felt in all aspects of the healthcare system.
“We see it on the front line, we are fighting,” he said.
He said he was aware that the federal government was trying to find new sources of PPE.
“As frontline doctors and all other types of workers, including older workers, we really need to distribute this distribution if they have stores,” he said.
“If there isn’t, we have a significant problem.”
The reports have emerged price gouging on items such as face masks.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners said the reports were “very concerning”. A spokesperson said the college welcomes the opening of the national medical stock to provide more PPE.
But he said: “We also know that these are unprecedented times and supplies are in high demand around the world. It is essential that GPs have the continued support and resources they need to ensure their protection, so that we have the best possible front line defense against this virus.