DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A disturbing lack of protective gear, medical experts, equipment and supplies - that is the key finding from a national survey of hospitals put out this morning by the federal government. NPR health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin was among the first to get that survey, and she brings us this report.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: This is the first survey of its kind, and some of the details are alarming, like the stories of hospital administrators trying to get more masks for health care workers.
ANN MAXWELL: So we heard hospitals going out and trying to source these masks at auto part shops, nail salons, art supplies store.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Ann Maxwell. She oversaw the report as assistant inspector general for evaluation and inspections at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One hospital said its shipment of masks from the federal government had all expired 10 years ago; in another shipment, half the masks were child-sized. Yet another hospital said, when trying to buy supplies, masks that had cost 50 cents were now $6 apiece. Maxwell says other supplies were also running short.
MAXWELL: Simple things like thermometers. They need to test staff. We also heard cleaning supplies, disinfectant, food, toilet paper.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Did you catch that? Toilet paper is running out in America's hospitals right now. One hospital said it was so short on disinfectants its staff tried to make it in-house with chemicals like chlorine. Then there are the shortages of ventilators and concerns about not having enough staff to operate them.
MAXWELL: We had one hospital administrator say to us, you can make thousands of ventilators, but it will take an army to manage that equipment and to care for those patients.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Testing is a huge problem for hospitals. It's still really hard to get tests, and there are delays in getting results. Many hospitals said it took seven days or more, and that has ripple effects.
MAXWELL: When a patient comes in and gets tested, the hospital needs to treat that patient as potentially a positive COVID patient. So that means they are taking up a bed in the hospital for the length of time it takes for that test to come back. That means when hospital staff are engaging with that patient, they are in full protective gear.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: When a test comes back negative, that means tons of masks and gowns and gloves may have been wasted. Maxwell says the inspector general's office hustled to get this report done. The office had dozens of staffers working on it. They called 323 hospitals around the country, and they did it over five days - the week of March 23. The report isn't just a survey of challenges but also how hospitals are managing them and the ways the federal government could help - for instance...
MAXWELL: To help intervene and coordinate the supplies that they needed and the distribution of those supplies.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So hospitals aren't all competing with each other in this chaotic, slapdash way. Administrators also said the government could do a better job with messaging to the public and to hospital workers who struggle with guidelines that change constantly and sometimes contradictory information from federal and state authorities.
The findings in this report confirm what we've been hearing anecdotally, says Dr. Irwin Redlener. He directs the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. And he adds it's encouraging that the federal government took the time to do the report.
IRWIN REDLENER: The question now will be how will the government respond? Will they help to fix some of these issues? Will the shared strategies help various hospitals help one another? I don't know. We can only hope.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He says these shortages and problems aren't going anywhere and we're not at the peak of the outbreak yet.
Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.
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