What you need to know about the forces reshaping our industry.


March 17, 2020

More patients and visitors are stealing hand sanitizer. (Surgical masks, too.)

Daily Briefing

    As concerns about the new coronavirus grow, doctors' offices and hospitals around the country are reporting more cases of patients and visitors stealing hand sanitizer, surgical masks, and other supplies, Christina Farr reports for CNBC.

    March 23 webinar: How to support frontline staff during stressful times

    About the global pandemic

    Reports of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, first surfaced in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China. While the number of new cases of COVID-19 reported in China has been dropping, newly reported cases of the disease have spiked in other countries, with COVID-19 reaching global pandemic status.

    As of Tuesday morning, officials reported more than 182,100 cases of COVID-19 globally, including about 81,000 cases in China and about 100,000 cases elsewhere. Officials said as of Tuesday morning there had been at least 7,305 deaths linked to the new coronavirus, including about 3,200 that occurred in China and about 3,800 that occurred elsewhere.

    The United States saw its first COVID-19 case in late January, and cases have spiked since then. As of Tuesday morning, state and federal officials had reported 4,482 cases of COVID-19 and 86 deaths linked to the new coronavirus in the United States.

    Hand sanitizer, masks go missing at hospitals

    Meanwhile, as fears surrounding COVID-19 mount, providers have observed and uptick in supply theft.

    Brett Oliver, a family physician in Kentucky, said he's noticed hand sanitizer inexplicably disappearing out of his extra rooms following patient visits. 

    Chesney Fowler, an emergency medicine physician at hospitals in Maryland and Washington D.C., said nurses have turned to a practice used to track controlled substances at high risk for theft, such as opioids, to keep track of surgical masks. Now, to keep closer tabs on mask inventory, nurses are counting the surgical masks at the start of every shift.

    And in Boston, Shuhan He, an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said urgent care staff are starting to hide the masks from patients. Earlier this month, He said he noticed a patient's family member trying to swipe masks off of a cart.

    "I told [them] to knock it off, and (we figured) that we had to get a better policy," He said.

    Aaron Miri, chief information health officer at UT Health in Austin, Texas, said his team has also seen more thefts of hand sanitizer and surgical masks recently. "There's a level of uncertainly floating out there so people are acting out."

    But some people are going to even greater extremes to protect themselves from the virus. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said some people are stealing medical equipment, including protective wear and N-95 respirator masks.  

    'Please think before doing stuff like this,' health system official pleads

    For hospitals, thefts of the N95 in particular masks could pose a "huge problem," according to Farr.

    Before the outbreak was declared a pandemic, HHS said the United States only has 1% of the required number of respirators it would need for health professionals if the outbreak were to become a pandemic.

    Peter Rabinowitz, co-director of the University of Washington MetaCenter for Pandemic Preparedness and Global Health Security, said a mask shortage is a frightening thing in the wake of a pandemic. "I worked through the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic at Yale Hospital, and we ran out of N-95 masks—and being in a high-risk situation without enough masks is not a good feeling," he said.

    When it comes to cheaper, surgical masks, any research suggesting these masks provide a level of protection against inhaling viruses "is very, very meager," according to William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "The general sense is perhaps, but they're certainly not an absolute protection."

    Some doctors' offices are resorting to removing the supplies from common areas to ensure they will have enough for providers. Some hospital officials, such as Miri, have started pleading with patients and their families to stop stealing from their facilities. "I do want to implore the general public to please think before doing stuff like this, you are hurting your family, your community and your city," Miri said (Farr, CNBC, 3/10; Higgins-Dunn, CNBC, 3/6).

    Have a Question?


    Ask our experts a question on any topic in health care by visiting our member portal, AskAdvisory.