Kern County government declared Monday it has plenty of the surgical masks and other protective medical gear now in short supply around the country, even as local clinics say they are beginning to run low amid heightened demand during the coronavirus pandemic.
The county's Department of Public Health said it has been able to meet all requests by local hospitals for personal protective equipment, or PPEs, while still maintaining an adequate supply on hand.
"There is no known shortage of PPE, including masks, for medical providers and first-responders in Kern County," department spokeswoman Michelle Corson said, adding that the agency had an ample inventory even before a donation late Sunday of 300,000 masks by San Francisco-based utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
The county's announcement came the same day Clinica Sierra Vista said it is experiencing a shortage, Omni Family Health expressed concern about its own supply and a hospital chain with two local centers addressed a series of confusing statements about the adequacy of its own inventory.
Corson declined to estimate how long the department's supply was expected to last but said the county expects to receive additional masks.
People who are sick should wear masks, she said, but most people should instead focus on social-distancing measures, which include staying six feet away from others. She said homemade masks do not qualify as approved PPEs.
Dignity Health Mercy & Memorial Hospitals, a group of several local medical centers, said in an emailed statement it has the supplies it needs to protect its caregivers who are treating and screening patients.
The company is monitoring its supplies and has "multiple contingency plans in place" to ensure its personnel have the PPEs they need, Dignity stated.
"Our supply chain is in contact with various suppliers to ensure we can replenish or move supplies as needed to any of Dignity Health’s various facilities," Dignity's statement read. "We are working closely with federal, state and local public health departments to ensure external resources are available if ever needed."
Kern Medical Center also has adequate supplies of PPEs and is monitoring them regularly, said Kandiss Bigler, KMC's director of marketing and communication.
Three or four weeks ago, the hospital began rationing masks that had been available for free to visitors, Bigler added. Limits were instituted, she said, after visitors "were starting to just take them all."
A spokeswoman for Bakersfield Heart Hospital did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Local medical clinics described strains in their own supply of PPEs.
Dr. Grace Tidwell, a family practice physician at Omni Family Health, said the company has enough supplies for now "but if things keep increasing like we have seen we will be in need in the near future … unless we can increase our supply channel.”
Prices for certain equipment have gone up and their rate of consumption has increased, she said.
“We’re having trouble finding places that have items that we need such as surgical masks. We’re running the lowest on that,” she said. “We’ve been looking beyond our usual vendors and other alternate vendors."
Clinica Sierra Vista spokeswoman Cassandra Martinez said the organization already faces a shortage and that "people are having to use their masks wisely.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued relaxed its recommendations for the use of surgical masks.
Rather than view masks as a single-use item to be discarded after each patient visit, the CDC said that in times of mask scarcity it may be acceptable to use the same mask for multiple encounters with different patients. It suggested removing the mask after each encounter and try to avoid touching the mask's exterior.
The president of Adventist Health Bakersfield, Sharlet Briggs, put out a call on social media over the weekend for 5,000 masks. Her request was echoed on social media by the president and CEO of Houchin Community Blood Bank.
On Monday, both executives said there had been a misunderstanding, though they appeared to differ on where the need actually lies.
Briggs said she was referring to "thank-you masks" meant as gifts, not usable equipment, for health-care providers and first-responders such as police and ambulance drivers.
"It's a mask of gratitude, if you want," she said. Adventist now has about 2,500 thank-you masks locally, she added, emphasizing she was unaware of any local shortage of PPEs.
Houchin's president and CEO, Brad Bryan, said Monday he had misunderstood Briggs during a conversation the two of them had Saturday. What he should have said was that Briggs was soliciting masks for first-responders who didn't have any, he said.
"Police and firemen are out there doing their jobs and maybe they’re short on masks," Bryan said.