After the Ebola outbreak, Sen. Schwertner recommended stockpiling protective gear and expanding state powers to deal with infectious diseases.
In 2014, an Ebola scare in Texas put the spotlight on the state’s preparedness to deal with an outbreak of infectious disease, and it wasn’t pretty. A task force formed to study handling such outbreaks highlighted the urgent need to stockpile personal protective equipment, known as PPE; establish an agile and more centralized public health authority in times of crisis; and give the government expanded powers to stop the movement of infected people and quickly quarantine the sick.
The lessons, for the most part, were not heeded. Now, as hospitals nervously eye their dwindling supplies of masks and other protective gear and public concerns mount over COVID-19, the author of a 2015 bill that would have enshrined many of the task force’s ideas into Texas law says the state remains ill prepared to fight infectious disease. The bill, Senate Bill 538 by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, passed the Senate but died in a House committee.
“I think we’d be positioned a lot better because we would have PPE equipment that would have been already bought and stockpiled. We would have had an inventory of equipment available,” Schwertner said in an interview this week. “And we would have had the ability to actually … declare a state of infectious disease emergency. We would be able to mandate a quarantine.”
While the governor declared a public health disaster Friday, Schwertner’s bill would have given him authority to tailor it specifically to an infectious disease outbreak and would have streamlined decision-making authority for public health decisions. The bill intended to make the state’s quarantine powers and the ability to enforce them stronger, too.
Schwertner said he found $3 million to $5 million in the state budget to fund a state stockpile of PPE, like masks, gloves and medical gowns. Once the overhaul bill failed toward the end of the 2015 legislative session, though, the money went elsewhere and the urgency to act faded.
Although first responders can draw on limited “caches” of PPE around Texas, funded by federal dollars, the lack of a steady supply of protective equipment stands out as a major concern among health officials as coronavirus spreads in the Lone Star State. In the Houston area, a hotspot for COVID-19 in Texas, officials are worried they won’t have enough PPE if the pandemic spreads rapidly, as it has in other countries.
Mohammad Sadath, infectious control practitioner at OakBend Medical Center in Fort Bend County, adjacent to Houston, said earlier this week the hospital is “OK for now,” but without the ability to resupply, he doesn’t know how long its PPE stocks will last.
“That’s a concern,” Sadath said. “We ordered some in the initial stages, and we received some of them. That was very early on. But then once everyone knew about it, the supply dried up.” Sadath said the number of face masks OakBend has is “a top secret right now.”
State and federal authorities can’t help much either. Paula Palla, infection control officer for the city of Humble, just north of Houston, said during a recent conference call with the Texas Department of State Health Services, officials said they had no extra PPE to give out and told providers to “go through your” regular suppliers to order more.
When she called her usual vendor last week, though, she was told the masks were on back order — indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said looser-fitting surgical masks can be substituted for respirators when the supply chain “cannot meet the demand” and that the equipment can be used past its shelf life as a “crisis” strategy.
“They’re saying you can use construction masks at this point” as a contingency measure, Palla said. “Something just to put a barrier.”
The agency has also said health care workers can reuse masks that are not visibly soiled or damaged if shortages persist. They’ve been told to hang them in a designated storage area or place them in a paper bag between uses.
“The thought of reusing masks is scary, even for a short period of time,” Palla said. “There’s a real risk of inadvertent self-contamination. The health and safety of our first responders and health care workers must be our top priority.”
Typical PPE for infectious disease includes a gown, gloves, goggles and — the items in such short supply now — specialized masks. The most common one used in infectious disease control is an N95 respirator — designed to block out 95% of particulate matter, assuming there’s a tight fit.