The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warned in a report Monday that hospitals across the country are facing "severe" shortages of both staff and vital supplies like ventilators and masks—an alarming sign that America's medical facilities are ill-equipped to cope with the coming peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
"One hospital reported receiving a shipment of 2,300 N95 masks from a state strategic reserve, but the masks were not useable because the elastic bands haddry-rotted."
—HHS Inspector General's OfficeThe report (pdf), based on interviews with more than 300 hospital administrators from 46 states, finds that "the most commonly reported challenges centered on hospitals' efforts to confirm cases of COVID-19, to keep healthcare staff safe, and to provide needed services to patients requiring hospital care for a wide array of medical reasons, including COVID-19."
"Hospitals reported that severe shortages of testing supplies and extended waits for test results limited hospitals' ability to monitor the health of patients and staff," the document continues. "Hospitals reported that they were unable to keep up with COVID-19 testing demands because they lacked complete kits and/or the individual components and supplies needed to complete tests."
While the objective of the report was not to analyze HHS' response to the coronavirus crisis, its 41 pages contain several anecdotes that serve as damning indictments of the federal government's lack of pandemic readiness.
One hospital told the HHS inspector general that it received two federal shipments of personal protective equipment (PPE) containing supplies that expired a decade ago. "The shipment contained construction masks that looked different than traditional masks and did not contain a true N95 seal," the report states.
Other facilities, in interviews conducted between March 23-27, reported similarly deficient shipments from the Trump administration and state governments:
Some hospitals noted that at the time of our interview they had not received supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile, or that the supplies that they had received were not sufficient in quantity or quality.
One health system reported that it received 1,000 masks from the federal and state governments, but it had been expecting a larger resupply. Further, 500 of the masks were for children and therefore unusable for the health system's adult staff.
One hospital reported receiving a shipment of 2,300 N95 masks from a state strategic reserve, but the masks were not usable because the elastic bands had dry-rotted.
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Ann Maxwell, HHS assistant inspector general, told NBC News that she was "taken aback" by the horror stories she heard in interviews with hospital administrators.
"It is unprecedented," said Maxwell. "I think one moment that stands out for me is when I was talking to a hospital administrator and he told me that he had staff in the hospital out trying to procure masks and gloves from auto part shops, from home supply stores, from beauty salons, from art supply stores."
"For parts of the country, particularly New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Detroit, this week is going to be the peak week. It's going to be the peak hospitalization, peak ICU week and, unfortunately, peak death week."
—Brett Giroir, HHS assistant secretary for health
The report came as medical professionals are warning that the worst of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. is yet to come. In a Fox News interview Sunday morning, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said this week "is going to be the hardest and saddest week of most Americans' lives, quite frankly."
"This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment, only it's not going to be localized," said Adams. "It's going to be happening all over the country."
More than 336,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly 10,000 people have died from the virus in the U.S.
Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at HHS, said on ABC's "Good Morning America" Monday that the coming week could be "peak week" for some states in the U.S. as the coronavirus continues to spread, stretching hospitals beyond capacity and fueling concerns of an economic collapse more devastating than the Great Depression.
"For parts of the country, particularly New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Detroit, this week is going to be the peak week," said Giroir. "It's going to be the peak hospitalization, peak ICU week and, unfortunately, peak death week."
"But that doesn't mean we're over this week," Giroir added. "There are other parts of the country that will peak a little bit later, like New Orleans. So we have to be very, very serious about what's happening this week, next week, the following weeks—do the physical distancing, wear the masks, that's how we're going to defeat this virus."