By Deborah Bloom

RENTON, Washington (Reuters) – Doctors in Seattle have been reduced to making their own face masks out of sheets of plastic, after a global shortage of medical protective gear has hit Washington state, an epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

Ahead of an anticipated shortage of medical supplies, hospital staff met in a conference room south of Seattle to make homemade masks for the doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals on the frontline of tackling the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re days away from running out of the equipment we need,” said Melissa Tizon, Associate Vice President of Providence St. Joseph Health, which runs 51 hospitals across five western states. “We’re expecting more shipments later on but until then we’ve got to improvise.”

With coronavirus cases surging past 13,000 in the United State, health care workers are dealing with not only a shortage of masks but also surgical gowns and protective eye gear.

President Donald Trump, speaking about medical gear at a White House briefing on Thursday, said “millions of masks” were in production, but did not give details.

“We have helped out, and there are right now millions of masks being made. But this is really for the local governments, governors and people within the state, depending on the way they divided it up. And they’ll do that, and they’re doing a very good job of it.”

When asked by a reporter at the briefing why the increased production of masks was not reaching hospitals, Trump said the medical system was “obsolete” and the production system “wasn’t meant for this” emergency.

“Nobody knew there’d be a pandemic or an epidemic of this proportion,” Trump said. “Nobody has ever seen anything like this before.”

Vice President Mike Pence said at the same briefing, “We’ve vastly increased the supply of medical masks, and we’re going to continue to put a priority on making sure that we’re calling on industry at every level.”

Meanwhile, many hospitals in other states have issued emergency calls for private companies to donate face masks and other items that can be used as medical protective gear.

The Illinois Health and Hospital Association on Thursday, made that plea to help the state’s 200 hospitals, asking for donations of masks from construction companies, dentists, veterinarians and any other group that might have the masks, called N95s.

“Hospitals all over the state are in jeopardy of potentially running out of critically needed protective medical supplies,” said the associations president and chief executive officer A.J. Wilhelmi.

(Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Renton, Washington. Additional reporting and writing by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Bill Tarrant and Raju Gopalakrishnan)