In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the sudden spike in demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) has significantly pressured manufacturers to accelerate their production. Despite leading manufacturers and even companies traditionally unrelated to the industry ramping up PPE production, there remains a global unmet demand. The dire consequences of PPE shortage are acutely apparent for healthcare workers, as evidenced by the elevated risk of infection and associated mortality. Based on current trends and forecasts, this trend is expected to continue.

In the first half of 2020, hospitals have been ordering PPE at an unprecedented rate. GlobalData’s analysis of hospital purchasing data in the US alone indicates an impressive 94 million 3M respirators purchased during Q1 2020. It was also apparent however that not all hospitals had been increasing their purchases of PPE equally, particularly for N95 respirators. By segmenting the hospitals based on their bed sizes (<200, 201–400, 401–600, and 601–1,000), there was a clear disproportionate increase in N95 respirator purchases by 401–600-bed hospitals versus the others between Q1 2020 and Q1 2019. This indicates a current hoarding behaviour by these hospitals, which will come at a cost for healthcare workers in hospitals of other sizes as they have relatively less PPE in supply. Importantly, even an increase in PPE stocks for these hospitals is likely not enough for the next several months, which is why manufacturers like 3M are now aiming to produce 100 million N95 respirators per month.

The prolonged shortage of PPE for healthcare workers has been caused by several factors. Firstly, some manufacturers are increasingly facing a critical shortage of raw materials to produce PPE, such as filters for N95 respirators and polypropylene for isolation gowns. Secondly, even after successful production, strict quality control measures can and have barred the selling of millions of suboptimal units. Thirdly, some governments have banned the export of domestically manufactured PPE as a measure of providing for their own citizens first.

In addition to increased production, healthcare workers have increasingly adopted alternative approaches to treating patients in an effort to further protect themselves and to conserve their scarce PPE. These include practising telemedicine over personal interactions, setting up physical barriers like acrylic sneeze guards, and minimising the exposure of healthcare workers caring for Covid-19 patients to other hospital staff and patients.

Based on recent trends and demand forecasts, GlobalData expects the PPE market to continuously grow, leaving manufacturers struggling to meet the total demand for the foreseeable future. Healthcare workers continuing to conduct best practices to protect themselves and to conserve PPE will also have a significant role in minimising supply shortages.