Doctors and nurses are on the frontlines fighting the coronavirus pandemic, and despite immense precautions, they are now at an increased risk of catching the virus. With the number of masks, gloves, and other necessary medical supplies dwindling, healthcare professionals are facing an emergency of their own. Some are now reporting that they've had to reuse equipment, including face masks.
Meghan Spyres, an emergency medicine physician at LA County USC told Refinery29 her hospital does not have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, face shields, and medical gowns.
Like Spyres, many doctors and healthcare workers across the country are also calling on their representatives and the Trump administration to “mobilize our American manufacturing capacity” to increase mask production in order to keep healthcare workers safe. These calls to action are a result of a global mask shortage since China — which made half the world’s masks before the pandemic — has not authorized mask exports to resume.
“We’re severely limited in N95 respirators, and having to reuse face shields and those kinds of things,” said Spyres, who added that doctors are disinfecting masks with bleach before reusing them. Frontline doctors and nurses are also having to store N95 respirators in bags for reuse while meeting patients. One of Spyre’s concerns is that healthcare workers — who need to be protected while coming into contact with patients carrying the virus — are going to get sick and not be able to care for the growing number of people affected by COVID-19.
These concerns are widespread. A survey conducted by National Nurses United earlier this month found that out of over 6,500 nurses in 48 states, 63% said they did not have access to N95 respirators, and only 30% said their workplace has enough PPE on hand. As a result, doctors are also getting sick, with at least two emergency physicians now in critical condition, Ars Technica reports.
A federal government official who spoke to The Washington Post on condition of anonymity said the government had received reports of more than 60 infections among healthcare workers. In China, more than 3,300 healthcare workers were infected with the virus by February 24, according to Chinese health authorities.
“If we run out of masks completely, and it looks like we may, then we won’t have the protection that we need,” said Spyres. “With the rate that we expect to see — the number of patients — we’re certainly concerned that we would be exposing healthcare workers [to the virus].”
More than ever, frontline doctors and nurses need support from local and state governments as they risk their lives to save the lives of others. Many of them have taken their demands to Twitter, posting pictures of themselves with protective equipment and adding the hashtag “#GetMePPE” while also tagging their representatives.
Healthcare workers are also raising awareness with a Change.org petition urging the government, media, and general public to assist them in obtaining this crucial protective equipment. The petition quickly received more than 380,000 signatures in just one day.
But, there are ways for others to help their local healthcare facilities to create actionable change in response to immediate supply shortages. Namely, you can call your senators and make similar demands. Ask your representatives what they’re doing to ensure that doctors and nurses in your state are getting access to PPE. You can also urge them to increase the U.S. manufacturing capacity for masks, gowns, and other protective equipment.
While frontline healthcare workers agree there definitely needs to be an increased supply of PPE, the most crucial action people can take right now is to stay home. Individuals who are experiencing symptoms that wouldn’t otherwise warrant a trip to the ER should consider setting up a telemedicine appointment or calling a primary care physician before going to the doctor or ER, Spyres suggested.
Otherwise, most of us are familiar with social distancing at this point and, according to Spyres, “It is probably the number one thing people can do to help us.”