Enough to Go Around?

Edition: December 2001 - Vol 9 Number 12
Article#: 1117
Author: Laura Thill

Here's yet another obstacle for the health care industry to hurdle as it responds to anthrax and other biochemical threats: Can enough gloves, masks and other protective wear be manufactured to ensure everyone's safety? And, how quickly can health care professionals educate a whole country of consumers who rarely, if ever, have seen a surgical mask or glove?

Postal workers aren't the only ones who are scared. Office workers and others around the country are clamoring for some protection against anthrax and possible unknowns. But, are consumers informed enough to know what products and services they need, as well as where to buy them?

Even if a few wise consumers do know whether they need nitrile or latex gloves, or face masks, gowns or both, the question that looms before manufacturers and distributors is: Is there enough on hand to go around?

A Spike in Interest
''There definitely is a new spike in activity and interest,'' notes Paul Girouard, marketing manager of Supermed USA, a glove manufacturer in Palm Harbor, FL. ''The problem is, people know they need protection, but don't know where or how to get it.'' In effect, we need to educate the public immediately, says Girouard. ''This is a major concern. It's not an easy task to evaluate personal protection. It doesn't happen overnight. If it did, we wouldn't need all of our government safety committees.''

Educating the public quickly and efficiently is only half the battle, continues Girouard, who worries about the level of resources available to meet such a dramatically growing need. ''The post office has decided it wants it employees using nitrile gloves,'' he explains. ''But, there's not enough nitrile in our country to satisfy this need.''

''There are a half million people clamoring for protection,'' notes Girouard. ''What do you do then? You can't take gloves away from the OR and give them to consumers. And this is just the post office we're talking about. We've yet to hear from UPS or any other mail handler.''

And who's to say every company across the country with a mailroom won't want masks and gloves.

Numbers Don't Lie
Any skeptics suspecting that the new surge of consumer interest in protective apparel is just a temporary craze probably should take a glimpse at the latest trend in distributor retail sales.

''Sales have increased by 40 percent since September 11,'' says John Marks, spokesman for Medline Industries, Mundelein, IL, referring to the company's masks and gloves. ''The majority of sales come from drugstore and pharmacy chains, such as Walmart and Osco, and from HME dealers,'' he says. However, Marks notes that there have been ''tons of inquiries'' from the company's employees as well.

Although the retail market is new territory for Medline to cover, the company has hustled to respond to consumers. At this point, says Marks, Medline is just getting used to dealing with consumer sales, so it has yet to sell directly to individuals. But, anyone with questions regarding protective wear can call 1-800-MEDLINE, and the company will answer all questions. ''Eventually, we will make it easier for consumers [to buy our products],'' says Marks.

Be Prepared
Making themselves available to answer questions and help consumers stay informed is exactly what distributors should be focusing on, says Sheila Dunn, president of Asheville, NC-based Quality America. ''Distributors must be a conduit of information,'' says Dunn, noting that informed distributors can help quell the fears of consumers who believe that buying protective gear will automatically solve any problems.

''Distributors must find out what consumers really need and then stock up,'' Dunn says.'' Also, they should make an effort to know what emergency groups exist in their own territory to help consumers.

Amidst all of the questions and concerns surrounding biochemical terrorism, one thing is certain: Distributors and manufacturers intend to give their all to satisfy the consumer need.

''It's time to be thinking of the logistics of selling to consumers,'' says Girouard.