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Gowns For Medical Staff, Made Of Same Material As Masks, In Short Supply

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The scramble for N95 masks has become less intense for many hospitals because of increased production. However, there's an unintended consequence. Health care workers now say it's difficult to get disposable hospital gowns, the kind that protects them from bringing the coronavirus home. That's because both gowns and masks are competing for the same material. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There are two types of medical gowns that health care workers typically use. There are sterilized surgical gowns, and the others are called isolation gowns. Those gowns are made out of laminate non-woven fabric called SMS, and they are impenetrable, protecting medical workers and patients from any exchange of bodily fluids or bacteria.

CASSIE SAUER: They're just, like, physically garbage bags with arms.

CORLEY: Cassie Sauer, head of the Washington State Hospital Association, says that may be a bit of an exaggeration. But there are posts on social media which show photos of nurses - some in New York - wearing garbage bags over other protective gear. The Centers for Disease Control suggest different strategies hospitals can use to deal with shortages. So what many are doing, says Ngozi Ezike, the public health director in Illinois, is operating under what the CDC calls crisis care guidelines.

NGOZI EZIKE: Crisis care guidelines means that you might have to use tactics that you don't usually use to make sure that you extend the limited resources that may be available.

CORLEY: That means everything from sterilizing and reusing a gown, if possible, instead of throwing it away and using alternative material. That's where the garbage bags have come in. Paul Pater, an emergency room nurse at the University of Illinois Chicago Hospital, worries about cross-contamination, though, if reusing gowns is the solution.

PAUL PATER: That's one of the things that people don't really understand about a lot of these PPE items that we have - is that they're designed to be used once and for a short duration of time.

CORLEY: Cassie Sauer in Washington state says it's been challenging to find a supplier for gowns. But recently, the hospital association got a donation and was able to buy $100,000 worth from China.

SAUER: I find this a very surprising shortage. This feels like you get plastic sheeting you sew into a gown. It's not building a ventilator. This is something America should be producing right now for itself, I think.

CORLEY: But here's the problem, says Chaun Powell. He's a health care executive at Premier Inc. Isolation gowns, N95 masks and surgical masks are all made of the same raw material.

CHAUN POWELL: So regardless of whether or not we manufacture it or China manufactures - whether it be the raw materials or the finished goods, there simply isn't enough to meet the current demands.

CORLEY: Roland Thompson (ph) is the vice president of the North American branch of a Chinese investment firm in Hong Kong. He uses his contacts to help bring PPE to Washington state. He says when it comes to which product to produce - an N95 mask or an isolation gown - with the raw material that is available, manufacturers keep one straightforward observation in mind.

ROLAND THOMPSON: You can make dozens of masks with the same fabric that makes one gown.

CORLEY: And that's why isolation gowns instead of N95 masks are now the No. 1 concern of many hospitals across the country.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILA BRAZILLIA AND BERNARD MOSS'S "AIRLOCK HOMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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