Coronavirus Triggers Release of Australia’s National Medical Stockpile Amid Mask Shortage

March 8, 2020 Updated: March 8, 2020

More than 1 million protective masks will be released from Australia’s National Medical Stockpile (NMS) as healthcare workers struggle to secure supplies from traditional stockists.

According to a spokesperson from the Department of Health, more than 860,000 masks have been distributed to doctors and healthcare workers across the country, “and a further 200,000 have been reserved for immediate distribution to PHNs (Primary Health Networks) should they be required,” the Department said in an email to The Epoch Times.

“The primary focus of the National Medical Stockpile is to provide resources to hospitals in key phases on an outbreak and deployments need to be carefully considered,” the Department continued. These resources include pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and personal protective equipment, such as goggles and masks.

Since Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Feb. 27 declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) to be at risk of becoming a global pandemic and enacted the government’s emergency response plan (pdf), doctors and clinics are “rationing” the use of masks in order to avoid running out before coronavirus cases rise, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Additionally, limited supplies have forced some clinics to purchase masks from hardware stores as supplies from the National Medical Stockpile have not been adequate to meet demand. Currently, the National Medical Stockpile has around AU$100 million worth of medical supplies such as masks, antibiotics, vaccines, and sanitisers, which are stationed in multiple secret locations in Australia.

“Getting our hands on masks has been tricky, to say the least,” Melbourne General Practitioner Vyom Sharma told ABC. “Just for one patient, we might have to go through four masks, and we’ve only got about 50 in our reserve.”

Sharma’s clinic received only 40 masks to share between seven doctors after multiple calls to the local Primary Health Network, which coordinates the distribution from the national stockpile.

“So we realised very early on that we’d have to source our own masks, so they are currently on back order from our online suppliers,” Sharma said.

In an emailed statement to The Epoch Times, Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Tony Bartone said doctors need access to PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and other resources to do their job safely and effectively, “especially if the numbers of patients requiring testing and care increases significantly if the virus becomes more widespread.”

“If just one doctor does not have PPE or sufficient staff to support them when they need it, then this is a serious problem.”

Dentists are also feeling the pressure with dental practices using around 9.5 millions masks per month, according to the Australian Dental Association (ADA).

“The ADA has been working intently with suppliers to locate new lines of supply, but we now believe that only the Federal Government can secure a supply of these masks to keep dentists’ doors open,” ADA’s Deputy CEO Eithne Irving said.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure dentists can see patients but without a guaranteed supply of masks, dentists cannot adhere to our strict Australian infection control standards. It means dental practices will be forced to close.”

The Department of Health added that it is “looking to source additional stock through domestic and international suppliers.”

Meeting Demand

The Australian military has been ordered by the federal government to collect 54 million masks from around the world, reported The Sunday Telegraph. These include surgical masks, and P2 and N95 respirators.

The masks are reported to be sourced from five continents.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said that the army was “on standby and ready to go.”

“While most hospitals have up to six months’ supply, some dentists and doctors have struggled a bit to secure masks. Where there is a shortfall we will supply masks to protect our frontline workers.”

In a press release the Health Minister said: “The government has been working closely with the medical profession, who have highlighted the importance of securing additional personal protective equipment to support the response to the global COVID-19 outbreak.”

“We will continue to work to secure additional masks to ensure the National Medical Stockpile remains well stocked, and Australia has enough personal protective equipment to support our medical professionals as the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds. This includes boosting domestic manufacturing capability and capacity.”

The updated supply to the National Medical Stockpile will include more than 40 million surgical masks, and 12 million P2 respirators. Hunt said the masks should be arriving by the end of April and would be distributed as required to healthcare workers, including those working in aged care and dentists.

On Friday, the federal government committed to a 50-50 shared health funding deal with the states and territories to assist with the diagnosis and treatment of patients with coronavirus (COVID-19).

The Australian Associated Press contributed to this report.