Shortages of masks and other critical protective equipment are leaving nurses and other healthcare workers vulnerable while they serve on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. What are we doing right now to protect them?
I remember the exact day my mom became a registered nurse.
I remember it because it was within the same week that I walked across the stage for my eighth-grade graduation. During the ceremony, an award for most valuable volunteer parent was presented and my mom’s name was called by the school principal. My principal looked around quizzically when no one responded and called her name again.
I looked up at the audience and scanned for my mom’s face—which was filled with terror. She was NOT about to move from that seat and walk up to that stage. But that was okay; that was just how my mom was—shy, introverted, and always too embarrassed to take credit for her selflessness, even when it was due.
So today, when I think of my mom and her coworkers—fellow nurses, doctors, therapists, maintenance workers, and aids—on the frontlines fighting against this awful pandemic, I am filled with pride. They are the heroes we need in this moment.
But now, along with this feeling of pride, I’m also the one who’s filled with terror.
I try to talk to my mom every day, but it’s been hard to reach her in the past few days because she’s been working tirelessly. It’s almost never good news when I do; last week seems like an eternity ago, but it was then that she told me her hospital was running out of masks. “We already have to ration them,” she said.
And it’s not only masks. In general, her hospital and other hospitals across the country lack adequate numbers of the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to prevent themselves from falling ill from the coronavirus. According to the CDC, N95 respirators are the PPE most often used to control exposure to infections from airborne viruses like the coronavirus. And now the situation is so dire that the government agency has changed its recommendation, now urging nurses to forgo N95 respirators in general and to reserve them for procedures in which small particles, known as aerosols, are more likely to be produced. (Like, for example, when a patient is so critically ill that they need to be intubated.)
President Trump responded to the growing crisis by invoking the Defense Production Act to mobilize war-scale manufacturing for critical items but a week later has yet to mandate that private companies mass produce needed medical supplies, while federal health officials said they plan to buy 500 million more N95 respirators over the next 18 months. What to do about shortages today?
Unbelievably, the CDC announced last Thursday that those healthcare workers who don’t have access to masks should use bandanas or scarves to shield them from infection. Consequently, nurses like my mom are left virtually unprotected. This is unacceptable; we owe our healthcare workers so much more.
“We don’t feel protected,” Melissa Johnson-Camacho, University of California, Davis nurse and chief nurse representative for the California Nurses Association, told ABC News. “I’ve cried almost every day. I think if there were more transparency, everyone would feel a lot better.”
This lack of transparency, leadership, and coordination between local, state, and federal agencies with individual hospitals is causing healthcare workers to be exposed to coronavirus needlessly. When we talked earlier this week, my mom told me that at least a dozen doctors and nurses on her floor were directly exposed to COVID-19 by a patient who came in for a routine surgery and tested positive after the operation.
Bonnie Castillo, the executive director for National Nurses United, which represents 50,000 registered nurses across the U.S., told ABC News that her organization hears from nurses daily, pleading for more sufficient resources. Additionally, in response to life-threatening shortages, more than 400,000 healthcare providers signed a Change.org petition that urges the Trump administration to do more to procure critical supplies right now.
We know from other countries that healthcare workers—the very people we need on the frontlines—are getting far sicker from coronavirus than other patients.
I talked to my mom last yesterday. She told me she is sick with a cough and had worked the entire day. I asked what her hospital’s response was. “They gave me one of our last masks and told me to stay six feet away from others,” she said, “and told me to take the day off tomorrow.”
So I continue to be filled with terror. And I keep asking what we are doing to protect our nurses. What happens when they’re all sent home sick with a cough because of inadequate protective gear? What will we do then?
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