Amy Arlund, an intensive care unit nurse in California, starts every overnight shift hoping her supervisors will give her a fresh N95 respirator.
“You are asked to reuse them for weeks on end,” Arlund, 45, told NBC News. “You have to justify to your manager repeatedly why you need a new one.”
Nearly 100 days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, health care workers across the country are still facing major shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, including crucial equipment such as masks, gowns, gloves and N95 respirators. Amid an alarming rise in coronavirus cases across the United States, the situation is especially dire at hospitals serving communities of color or patients on Medicaid, NBC News has found.
"The issue of PPE for health workers has not gone away," Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said Wednesday at a news briefing.
A new study out of Wuhan, China, is finding that health care workers who were appropriately protected with PPE did not get infected, despite being exposed to the virus.
Arlund is all too familiar with the frightening results of the crisis: a nurse at her hospital, Kaiser Permanente Fresno Medical Center, died of COVID-19 at the end of May.
“She was exposed from a patient who was not properly isolated and she had no PPE on her floor,” she said. “She spent almost two months in our ICU being cared for by her co-workers and her own friends and she passed away.”
In a statement, a Kaiser Permanente spokesman said the hospital is using a combination of new and reused N95 masks. “Like all health care providers, we continue to experience shortages of PPE, including N95 masks. We are aggressively managing our supply chain and working with existing and new manufacturers to increase these supplies,” the statement read.
A recent survey by the American Nurses Association found that 79 percent of nurses were encouraged, or even required, to reuse PPE, and 59 percent said they felt unsafe doing so. The survey included more than 14,000 nurses from all 50 states.
What you end up doing is wearing the same gown for basically the whole shift.
In the early days of the pandemic, PPE shortages were affecting many major hospitals. But most of those larger facilities have now been able to replenish their supplies. Now, health care workers say it’s smaller safety net hospitals and nursing homes serving the most vulnerable communities that are still facing horrific shortages.
“They are populations that are on Medicaid or have poor access to care and face greater barriers,” said Dr. Garth Walker, an emergency room physician in Chicago, who also works with the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics. “The common theme is that safety net hospitals are getting less money.”