WHO officials make urgent plea for medical gear: ‘Supplies are rapidly depleting’

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World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus R speaks at a daily briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 2, 2020.

Chen Junxia | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

World Health Organization officials called on medical supply manufacturers to “urgently increase production” to meet the global demand that is needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak rapidly spreading across the world.

“Supplies are rapidly depleting. WHO estimates that each month 89 million medical masks will be required for the COVID-19 response, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, said at a press conference at the organization’s Geneva headquarters.

Tedros said manufacturers need to increase personal protective gear supplies by 40% to meet the needs of the medical community.

WHO suggests that face masks are most effective when infected patients wear them to prevent those droplets from spreading to other people.

Global demand for face masks continues to surge. In China, demand for face masks has depleted the country’s stockpile where doctors and nurses face shortages, according to the South China Morning Post.

Emerging from Wuhan, China just two months ago, COVID-19 has already spread to more than 91,300 people across at least 73 countries, killing at least 3,110 in the process — including at least six in the U.S. 

WHO official announced on Monday that number of new coronavrius cases outside China was almost 9 times higher than that inside the country over the last 24 hours. They also increased the risk assessment of the coronavirus Friday to “very high” at the global level. In January, it declared the virus a global health emergency, while urging the public against over-reacting to the virus.

The organization has yet to classify the virus as a pandemic and has maintained that its attention is on containing the spread, although the virus has substantially moved beyond China and has now been found in nearly 60 countries.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, told Senate lawmakers Tuesday that the current outbreak already meets two of the three main criteria under the technical designation of a pandemic.

“It is a new virus, and it is capable of person-to-person spread,” she said in written testimony at a Senate hearing. “If sustained person-to-person spread in the community takes hold outside China, this will increase the likelihood that the WHO will deem it a global pandemic.”

Epidemics have emerged in Iran, Italy, and South Korea, where the number of cases is rapidly increasing. The U.S. recorded its first six deaths from the virus in recent days while New York state confirmed a second case earlier Tuesday. Every country should prepare for its first case and no one should assume it won’t get any cases, Tedros said last month.

“This is a unique virus, with unique features. This virus is not influenza,” Tedros said. “We are in uncharted territory.”

Tedros shed more light on the virus Tuesday, saying it spreads similar to influenza, by small droplets of fluid from the nose and mouth of someone who’s sick.

“However, there are some important differences,” he said. “First COVID-19 does not transmit as efficiently as influenza from the data we’ve seen so far. With influenza, people who are infected but not yet sick are major drivers of transmission, which doesn’t appear to be the case with COVID-19.”

Tedros said last week that health officials would not “hesitate” to declare the outbreak a pandemic if “that’s what the evidence suggests.” On Friday at a press briefing, he said that most cases of COVID-19 can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases and there isn’t any “evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities.” That’s one reason why WHO hasn’t declared the outbreak a pandemic, Tedros said Friday.

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, said Monday scientists still don’t know exactly how COVID-19 “behaves,” saying it’s not like influenza. “We know it’s not transmitting in exactly the same way that influenza was, and that offers us a glimmer, a chink of light, that this virus can be suppressed and pushed and contained,” he said.

Ryan also said health officials do not think countries aren’t being transparent, saying, “It’s very easy to be caught unaware in an epidemic situation.”

WHO officials Friday increased the risk assessment of the coronavirus to “high” to “very high” at a global level. The world can still avoid “the worst of it,” but the increased risk assessment means the WHO’s “level of concern is at its highest,” Ryan said at the time.

Health officials have said the respiratory disease is capable of spreading through human-to-human contact, droplets carried through sneezing and coughing and germs left on inanimate objects. The virus appears to be particularly troublesome for older people and those with underlying health conditions, health officials have said. Symptoms can include a sore throat, runny nose, fever or pneumonia and can progress all the way to multiple organ failure or death in some severe cases, they said.

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