Imagine a country where health care workers lack the equipment necessary to prevent coronavirus infection while treating people suffering from this terrible new disease.

Other countries are sending help. But meanwhile the shortage is so bad that citizens have taken it upon themselves to sew cloth face masks to replace the medical grade N95 masks that physicians, nurses, and others use.

Do you have that picture firmly in your head? Welcome to the United States today.

Protective personal equipment, or PPE as it is commonly called, is used by health care workers to prevent themselves from becoming infected by the viruses and bacteria attacking their patients. Common PPE items include masks, gloves, and gowns.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has made these items scarce, particularly the N95 masks that are essential for reducing risk of infection. As a fourth-year medical student, I see firsthand how a lack of masks is hindering our response to this pandemic — and putting health care workers at risk.

At my institution in north Georgia, all medical students and some resident physicians are under home isolation, partially due to a shortage of PPE. That means fewer workers are on hand to treat pandemic victims.

Meanwhile physicians on the front lines are reporting reusing these single use masks, and some have treated patients suspected of having COVID-19 without adequate protection. In New York, a staggering 200 employees at Weill Cornell Medical Center have fallen ill. Two nurses in the city died just the other week.

New infections in the United States are skyrocketing each day. The pandemic will continue to exponentially worsen, yet we already lack the equipment essential for the safety of health care workers.

Americans spend more per capita on health care than any other country in the world. So how can this happen? Shouldn’t we have plenty of materials to fight this virus while keeping our physicians and nurses safe?

Part of the problem is treating health care like a for-profit business. In the United States, there is no economic incentive for hospitals to stockpile protective equipment in sufficient quantities to battle a pandemic. Major conglomerates just haven’t found it profitable.

But it’s also a failure of public policy. For example, New York State advises hospitals to maintain a three-day supply of N95s for emergencies. In a multi-month pandemic, that’s woefully inadequate.

The federal government does maintain a “Strategic National Stockpile,” which contains medical supplies for health crises. However, we don’t know how many N95 masks there are. Was the federal government prepared for a crisis of this scale? It seems unlikely.

Experts and prior administrations have repeatedly warned of infectious disease threats on a global scale. Given these constant warnings and the long human history of pandemics, it is unconscionable that we are so unprepared to protect our health care workers.

The government must take immediate action to increase mask production and protect the workers risking their lives daily. Today, President Trump can invoke the Defense Production Act to demand that capable businesses produce N95 masks and other protective equipment.

However, he has stated that he will only use this in a “worst case scenario.” That worst case scenario has arrived. Any delay in production will kill more doctors, nurses, and other health care workers looking after our loved ones suffering from COVID-19.

As the government fails, we are obligated to help. If you own masks, gowns, or other protective items, they can be directly taken to local hospitals. It is one of the many ways that ordinary citizens can help this fight, and it may very well save a life.

But the impact we can make on our own is limited, so the government must take swift action to solve this life-threatening problem.

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Mark Luskus

Mark Luskus is a fourth year medical student at Emory University School of Medicine. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.