- Amid a rising number of reported COVID-19 cases in the United States, there’s been a growing demand for medical masks, leading to a global shortage and theft.
- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday that his administration had directed state police to investigate cases of the theft of masks and other equipment from hospitals and medical facilities, putting healthcare workers at risk.
- As the demand for masks increases, they have also been reported stolen from other facilities where they are necessary, like from a research lab at Harvard.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
People are stealing face masks and other health equipment from hospitals and other facilities where their existence is necessary amid the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the United States.
Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, claimed that thefts were happening in New York at a press conference Friday, CNBC reported.
“Not just people taking a couple or three, I mean just actual thefts of those products,” Cuomo said. “I’ve asked the state police to do an investigation, look at places that are selling masks, medical equipment, protective wear, feeding the anxiety.”
Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, told Modern Healthcare she had witnessed thefts of masks and other protective equipment from high-trafficked areas in her facility.
Stories of hospital mask theft have also posted to social media.
“We’ve had to lock up the mask here at the hospital because people are stealing them,” one person said on Twitter.
“[Shoutout] to everyone buying and stealing masks from hospitals! Now we are critically low and I can’t even use a mask for sterile procedures,” another person tweeted.
The issue is not limited to the United States. Global News reported in Canada instances at two hospitals where workers had to intervene to prevent people from stealing masks.
Hospitals are just one type of facility being ravaged for masks. Ya’el Courtney, a Ph.D. student studying neuroscience at Harvard University told Business Insider that masks had been found stolen from research facilities at her school.
“Yesterday the director of the animal facility informed our lab (and others), that people have been stealing entire boxes of face masks and our inventory is rapidly declining,” Courtney said.
She said that when the director of the facility contacted the supplier of the masks, the supplier said they were “unsure whether they would be able to maintain a supply.”
A lack of supplies — like masks — could result in the suspension of work at the facility, she said.
“This may rapidly become a problem for continuing research,” Courtney, who primarily works with mice as part of an animal research facility, told Insider.
“In order to enter this area and do our research, scientists have to put on a full set of sterile gear – a gown, shoe covers, hair net, gloves, and a face mask,” she said. “This is critical to conducting animal research to protect both the researcher and the animals, and to prevent sample contamination.”
While Courtney doesn’t work on developing vaccines, she said vaccine research does occur in other labs in the same building at Harvard, though she was unaware of any research specific to COVID-19. Still, research into vaccines could come to a halt without proper protection like face masks.
As Business Insider previously reported, masks aren’t all that effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus among the general population. Government officials, like Vice President Mike Pence and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, have advised against wearing the masks urging that people leave them for healthcare workers who need them the most.
Health experts say face masks should only be worn by a few people, including healthcare workers and people who already exhibit symptoms of the novel coronavirus. Otherwise, organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization say washing hands and avoiding people who are ill are more effective methods.
As Politico reported, US officials have estimated the country only has about 1% of the masks needed for healthcare professionals in the case of a pandemic. While the US government has contracted with 3M to produce 35 million more masks each month, it can only create about 4.1 million each month.
The company will ramp up production of industrial-grade masks, which are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, to meet the demand.
Under the 2005 PREP Act, companies are waived from claims of legal liability when the government contracts with them during a public emergency. Industrial masks are not included under the 2005 law though, because they aren’t FDA regulated. The Trump administration has attempted to issue liability waivers for the industrial masks, though Democrats have blocked attempts believing they are too “expansive,” Politico reported.
Requests to Gov. Cuomo’s office and New York State Police were not immediately returned Saturday.
At least 102,000 people have been infected by the new coronavirus and nearly 3,500 have died. While most deaths have occurred in China, where it is believed to have originated, the US has reported 17 deaths as the virus continues to spread globally.