As viral epidemic intensifies, those on front lines see gaps in the arsenal

As the coronavirus continues to enlarge its foothold in the United States, medical facilities at all levels are making preparations, including in New Jersey where no cases of the flu-like illness have yet been confirmed.

And those preparations are exposing gaps that, left unaddressed, could cause problems should cases arise in the Garden State, as experts expect.

At the American Family Care clinic in Hillsdale, staffers conducted a drill Wednesday practicing how to handle a suspected case with the arrival of a fake patient complaining of a sore throat. But they lacked the masks recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control for medical personnel dealing with the new pathogen, which has left thousands dead in China, the epicenter of the now-worldwide outbreak.

The patient gets a routine mask, but the medical personnel are supposed to don full protective personal gear, including a gown, goggles, gloves and what’s known as a N95 respirator. The clinic doesn’t have any.

“It’s because there’s a shortage of them because everybody’s been buying them,” said Dr. Douglas Borkowski, medical director of the urgent care center in Bergen County, one of thousands of such facilities that play a key, front line role in the nation’s medical care system. “So there’s now a shortage in the United States of the masks, that medical people should be wearing. It’s back ordered. We’re on a waiting list.”

The state Health Department on Wednesday said it’s aware of the shortage. “We’ve requested an allocation of medical supplies, including N95 respirators, from the Federal Strategic National Stockpile,” it said in a statement.

Vice President Mike Pence has said the United States is working with 3M and other manufacturers to produce 35 million more masks per month.

Also in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, the House fast-tracked a $7.8 billion emergency funding package to fight the virus expert call COVID-19. The measure, which quadruples the allocation requested by the Trump administration, now heads to the Senate where a quick vote is expected, and then to the president’s desk.

The CDC has also approved $1.75 million for New Jersey’s anti-coronavirus efforts.

Wednesday the CDC further broadened guidelines for coronavirus screening to permit anyone with symptoms like a fever, cough or difficulty breathing to get tested, with a doctor’s approval. With expanded pool of tests being conducted, New Jersey officials are now awaiting results on a dozen people.

Testing kits had also been scarce, but officials said New Jersey will get another 500 on Thursday, doubling its supply to 1,000 kits.

Globally, the World Health Organization is reporting that the number of cases now tops 93,000, with nearly 3,000 deaths, the overwhelming majority of those in China. Of the newly confirmed cases, though, the organization says that most are now occurring beyond the Asian nation. In all, cases have now been confirmed in 76 nations.

New York has dramatically expanding its coronavirus testing, and is now dealing with multiple cases. Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday said a Westchester County attorney who had tested positive also infected his wife, son and daughter, as well as a neighbor who drove him to the hospital. Schools and a synagogue the family members attended have all closed, for now, as the state investigates.

“Whenever you find a case, it’s about containment, and doing the best you can to keep the circle as tight as possible,” Cuomo said, who said students on study abroad programs in the most affected nations are returning home and will be quarantined for 14 days once they arrive.

Meanwhile, Rutgers officials say they’ve also suspended study abroad programs and asked students to return.

“While we are making this strong recommendation, please know that the final decision on participation in those programs is up to the affected students and their families,” they said.

Also in New Jersey, where coronavirus guidelines have been issued to school districts, the potential for large-scale quarantines remains, and shoppers are stocking up on items — clearing shelves of hand sanitizer, water and bleach.

In Hillsdale, staffers at the clinic are making do with regular masks, because that’s all they’ve got. Borkowski, the medical director, says the initial coronavirus screening process takes relatively little time — checking vital signs, running quick turnaround lab tests to rule out flu and strep, and keeping the patient isolated.

“Because we’re not in contact with them for a long period of time, we should most likely be okay,” he said.

Staffers said they were concerned.

“It’s nerve-wracking, it really is,” said X-Ray technician Rossana Condini. “But there’s a shortage all over. It’s not just here — it’s all over.”

Borkowski also had advice for those worried about the outbreak.

“You should have at least two weeks’ worth of your medications at home. You could always have stuff delivered to the house, if you need to,” he said. “There’s really no reason to be stocking up on water and non-perishables and things like that.”