Americans have stolen and wasted millions of medical gloves and N95 masks
Medical-grade gloves and N95 masks have become something to never be taken for granted. This personal protective equipment (PPE) serves a critical role in healthcare by preventing disease transmission. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a US hoarding trend, involving stolen supplies from hospitals, research facilities and even factory warehouses. Millions of PPE have been stolen by healthcare employees and patients as well. A significant portion of the general public are also wasting millions of PPE, littering the parking lots of department stores all over the country. Think of the healthcare workers that could use the PPE to save lives. Many lessons should be learned to secure future PPE supplies.
Where Are These People Getting PPE?
Look across America, there are scenes of gloves littering the parking lots of popular stores like Walmart. Millions of people (among the general public) can be seen wearing a variety of gloves and masks – at the same time, our healthcare professionals are said to be resorting to trash bags as PPE.
Some people certainly went online weeks ago (before eBay banned the sale of N95 masks) to buy the masks. A variety of gloves are being worn by the public, including medical, food processing and dishwashing types. They come in all kinds of shapes and colors, but a majority of the gloves seem to be the type found in healthcare settings.
While hospitals across the country report critical shortages of masks, they have also reported stolen supplies, including N95 masks and gloves. Hospital supply areas often have large bulk boxes so medical staff can find gloves and masks when they need it. The coronavirus pandemic started a trend of hoarding, which unfortunately included healthcare staff stealing hospital supplies.
This was the response I got when asking a Walmart shopper where their family got gloves from. I noticed they were wearing gloves and masks. They appeared to be similar to what I’ve seen used in medical offices so it was almost obvious to me before asking the question, at least as to where they came from.
When they were done shopping, one of them looked both ways and then dropped her gloves on the ground of the parking lot. I was furious but this is not the first time I’ve seen this happen. It’s a norm during this pandemic. I’m gathering pictures, as a journalist and as a professor, to educate others. This is a real learning experience.
Given that there is a nationwide shortage of gloves and masks, and that official Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines state that healthcare workers should be first priority, why would a hospital knowingly give away large boxes of supplies they desperately need to employees to take home and give out to family and friends? If you ask yourself this question, the only logical conclusion is that most, if not all, of these supplies were stolen by employees.
Another scenario could be a patient in a waiting room stealing masks and gloves while staff was away.
Either way, there is no way hospitals just gave this equipment away. It was stolen.
It’s just odd that at a time when America’s healthcare workers are all over social media, and news reports were pleading for masks and gloves, due to a mass shortage, millions of the general public are casually walking around wearing those much-needed masks and gloves.
Healthcare Workers Were Stealing N95 Masks & Gloves
There are now numerous news stories about hospital employees stealing masks and gloves. I reported on possible N95 masks being stolen from “bulk” supplies and then sold on eBay through price gouging (weeks ago). It’s probably very safe to say that a lot of the bulk items for sale were indeed stolen.
For example, Josie D. Wright, 33, was charged with a misdemeanor after allegedly stealing a box of face masks and alcohol prep pads from Bassett Medical Center in New York. Law enforcement thinks that other hospital workers were also involved. It seems as if she was trying to resell online, stating she was in the process of shipping them to someone.
Here is a clear case of a man stealing bulk N95 boxes and then trying to resell them. This time it was from a construction company. Vladislav Drozdek of Beaverton, Oregon faces charges after he allegedly stole up to 25 cases of N95 masks worth $2,500 from a Portland business. The day after they were stolen, the owner noticed them for sale on Craigslist.
USA Today reports that the stolen Drozdek equipment was eventually recovered and donated to local hospitals, thankfully.
It’s happening all over the country. Both big and small medical facilities are seeing equipment disappear.
Here’s another example of entire boxes of N95 masks being stolen in West Virginia. They are reviewing security tapes (good idea). It will be interesting to see if this was also another hospital employee stealing.
In Minnesota, a small low income clinic had ordered 300 masks. They got the shipment, but the next day the entire shipment of masks was stolen. They said there were no signs of breaking into the facility, which likely means someone from the inside took them.
A Business Insider headline, “People are stealing masks and other sterile supplies from hospitals and research facilities amid a global shortage”, paints a clearer picture as to how rampant stealing may be among hospitals and research facilities.
Here is a quote from a doctor in Boston (Business Insider):
Here is another quote from a research student at Harvard (Ya’el Courtney, via Business Insider).
Together, this rampant stealing of masks and gloves from hospitals, construction sites, research facilities, offices, and even small businesses amounts to millions of stolen gloves and masks. Surely, this trend directly contributed to the critical shortage of PPE in the United States.
Not only were people stealing millions of masks… they are also wasting millions of masks. There are thousands of reports of gloves and masks all over the ground outside of popular department stores. Shoppers are also finding discarded/contaminated gloves in parking lots, shopping carts, and in fields. People are just throwing this stuff on the ground. Think of the medical professionals that could have used this equipment in the hospital to save lives.
Many of these people were improperly wearing the gloves and masks. The result is nothing more than a false sense of security and total waste of valuable protective equipment.
Healthcare Professional Are Trained on Masks & Gloves
Besides stealing and hoarding N95 masks and gloves, most people were not trained on how to properly use the equipment. Now that the government is starting to talk about recommending all Americans wear masks, for some reason later than sooner, this is going to become a bigger problem. It’s not a good idea to talk about PPE without proper training. This is also one major reason for the millions of wasted PPE seen littered all over parking lots in America.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) includes certain masks and gloves. Some of these products are specifically made to industry standards for healthcare workers. Healthcare workers are trained on how and when to use this equipment, since they are used as a barrier to prevent disease transmission.
For example, if you wear the mask wrong, it could lead to contamination, essentially making it worse than not using it at all. In addition, if you do not practice aseptic techniques with gloves, it defeats the purpose of wearing them.
Astonishingly, last week, I witnessed a lady grocery shopping with a mask on that clearly had some kind of respiratory issue (not necessarily COVID-19). She lifted the mask up briefly just to sneeze while in the produce section of the store. I watched this happen from about 30 feet away and felt disgusted.
I’ve witnessed people wearing the masks upside down, sharing it with others, lifting it off to touch their mouth on the inside of the mask, and even touching the inside with dirty glove tips or their bare hands. If you wear the mask wrong or don’t know how to use the gloves, it does more harm than good. Don’t forget, we’re in a nationwide shortage of PPE right now.
When I was in emergency medical science academy, I was always taught “don’t forget the basics.” One of the basics to medical care is personal protection, namely gloves and masks (among other equipment). We get so busy and caught up in care that something so basic could be taken for granted. From now on, this equipment should be kept in front of cameras and or locked up to the point of only the most trusted staff can access them.
I think many of us are learning so much from the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, and that is a great thing. We should learn from mistakes. It’s a mistake to not adequately protect your protective equipment supply. It’s a mistake to hesitate with protective guidance for healthcare workers and the general public. It’s a mistake to promote using equipment like PPE without adequate training. Many mistakes led to our current PPE scarcity.
When you have a pandemic and hoarding behavior, your supply can quickly disappear. We’ve learned this the hard way during the COVID-19 US outbreak. It’s critical that medical leaders, college professors, and construction managers carefully watch their personal protective equipment supplies. Prevention is key. Lock up your supplies with a chain of command trace on who accesses them. Think about keeping larger supplies locked up until smaller supplies run out. As always, account for who is in your facility. Place your supplies in front of camera systems.
Many factors made this situation worse. The stealing and hoarding of supplies is just one aspect of the chaos. We’re also a nation that overconsumes and wastes much, something that environmental science has highlighted for decades.
Just Stay Home
Another solution to this mess is for most people to just stay home. Social distancing was important. It means staying away from huge groups of people. Going outside by yourself, away from people, or being on top of a mountain by yourself is fine. What isn’t ok is crowding during a pandemic. Many people should just stay home. If you stay home, you don’t really need N95 masks or gloves.
Coronavirus is even more dangerous for certain age ranges. Any time you go out into a crowded area, especially indoors (during a pandemic), you’re putting yourself and others at risk. If you are in a high risk (vulnerable) age group and have pre-existing conditions, you’re risking your life. You can also be asymptomatic and spread coronavirus, according to growing research. Why risk it, if you don’t have to?
America’s priorities need to be examined. I sincerely hope we as a country learn important lessons from this pandemic. So many things continue to happen that make it worse, including the waste of PPE resources. Each person can do their part to help reduce the impacts, including just staying home.
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