Spread the word: save the masks for healthcare workers

A nurse in a protective suit is pictured at a drive-in testing site for coronavirus (COVID-19) at the Regional Hospital Center in Liege, Belgium March 11, 2020.  REUTERS/Francois Lenoir - RC2QHF98SI02
The COVID-19 pandemic is made worse by the mask shortage, which puts healthcare workers at greater risk.
Image: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is made worse by shortages of critical supplies, like test kits and protective medical masks.
  • WHO says only healthcare providers, people who are ill and those who are caring for the ill need to wear a mask.
  • Members of the general public with no symptoms do not need to wear a mask.

The world should have seen this coming.

Fifteen years or so ago, some leaders who gathered at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos began ringing alarms bells about the need for better pandemic preparedness. The SARS outbreak that ended in 2004 remained fresh in everyone’s minds, and attendees back then expressed concern that civil society was ill-prepared to manage the consequences of a virus racing around the globe.

If the lack of preparation for COVID-19 is any indication, the world apparently didn’t see it coming.

Humans can be slow to act, wired to pay closest attention to the risks right in front of us, however small, while ignoring much bigger risks looming in the distance until they hit with great force.

That’s where we find ourselves today, dealing with an outbreak the world hoped would never come, made worse by widespread shortages of test kits and the critical protective equipment healthcare providers need to care for people with COVID-19.

To be sure, some progress has been made. Henry Schein, for its part, is helping to lead one vital element of the global response. In Davos in 2015, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, we became a founding member and the private-sector lead of the Pandemic Supply Chain Network (PSCN), a public-private partnership dedicated to improving the flow of information and supplies between manufacturers, distributors, and healthcare workers. From the public sector, the PSCN participants include, among others, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the World Bank, the World Food Programme and the World Economic Forum.

Here what the WHO is telling the private sector members of the PSCN, and what we know from direct experience: people are hoarding the all-important masks that protect front-line healthcare workers combatting the virus.

This can’t continue.

Americans Are Hoarding Face Masks
Americans are hoarding medical face masks, which are most critical for healthcare workers.
Image: Statista/Nielsen Retail Measurement Services

We all must help by spreading the word from the WHO that the only people who should wear a mask are healthcare providers, people who are ill and those who are caring for the ill. Public health experts advise that a mask is not required if a person is exhibiting no symptoms. The shortage of masks is making it harder for front-line responders to contain the outbreak, which only increases the risk for everyone else.

Truth be told, many individuals and companies who are neither healthcare providers nor suppliers to healthcare workers are stocking up on masks for their own use. It’s understandable, of course, and perhaps even admirable in its intent, but absolutely incorrect from a public health perspective, especially given the lack of proven efficacy of masks for the general public.

Think of it this way: Imagine a liter of water spilled in the center of a large room. Where would one place towels to contain to spill? On and immediately around the spill, of course. We wouldn’t line the towels along the perimeter of the room and wait for the water to get there.

But that’s essentially what we’re doing when we buy masks for use by healthy individuals rather than conserving masks for the brave healthcare workers at the center of the fight. This virus is so contagious that healthcare workers all over the world are developing skin rashes, falling ill with COVID-19, some tragically dying, when compelled by shortages to wear the same mask for entire days, even multiple days.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

If healthcare workers lack the equipment to fight the virus, the virus stands a better chance of winning – and which means, in this case, more lives lost.

To help mitigate this outbreak, we must work together as leaders to protect the heroic healthcare workers risking their lives to protect us.