By now, there’s no denying America’s healthcare system is drastically unprepared to deal with the rapid spread of COVID-19, commonly known as coronavirus. But an NBC News survey of 250 front-line hospital workers reveals the startling truth of just how bad things are.
From a critical shortage in personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks and bleach wipes, to a lackluster response from the federal government to healthcare workers’ desperate pleas, the anecdotes from the front are bleak.
The healthcare providers surveyed by NBC News work in hospitals, outpatient clinics and offices. Many reported being forced to ration or reuse supplies, including surgical and N95 masks, for fear of running out.
A Flint, Michigan nurse, who primarily works with immunocompromised patients, said nurses at her hospital have been rationed one N95 mask and are required to store them in a bag and reuse them. The nurse also claims they’re critically short of disinfectant wipes. “We ordered five containers the other day and we only got one,” she said, asking to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job. “One container of bleach wipes for 42 beds. I don’t feel like my hospital is failing us. It’s the whole system that’s failing us.”
“We certainly would not ask a firefighter to fight a fire with a spray gun,” says Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, the nation’s largest nurses’ union. A registered nurse for 45 years, Burger said that neither the government nor the private sector are acting fast enough to get critical supplies to those who need them. “It is a moral obligation of our government and our employer to provide safety equipment to those of us on the front line,” she says.
A health care worker in Indiana claims medical staffers can only get masks when a patient has tested positive for the virus, even though the facility has no way to test every patient who comes in with symptoms. “There are many possible exposures in my hospital but are not equipped with the testing devices in order to confirm the cases,” the worker wrote. “We are then not allowed to wear proper PPE because they are not ‘positive’ and because our hospital is short on the PPE. We are also told that we are expected to keep the N-95 masks for several days and several patients and that they can be disinfected with Sanicloth wipes.”
In response to the shortage of PPE, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has loosened its guidelines on proper use and reuse of masks.
“The fact that a recommendation like that came out from the Centers for Disease Control is mind boggling to me,” Dr. Adam Friedlander, an emergency physician working in Atlanta, told NBC News. “There was a time when a recommendation came from the CDC, we knew that it was evidence-based guidelines for how we could protect ourselves from becoming sick with a potentially fatal illness. Now we know the recommendations are coming from a place of desperation, acknowledging that these supplies are unavailable.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement this week that it’s been steadily providing PPE to areas in need from the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s supply of pharmaceutical and medical supplies.
“We have been transparent that more supplies are needed – hence the request to Congress for additional funding so we could procure more and scale up production,” the statement said. “The role of the SNS is to fill the gap temporarily until states and localities working with the private sector can respond to the state and local needs.”