Health care workers try to conserve supply of PPE as coronavirus progresses

KYW Staff
March 31, 2020 - 2:55 pm

UPDATED: April 1, 8:20 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — First responders and health care workers across the country are struggling with a shortage of masks, goggles and other personal protective equipment (PPE). As a result, they have to make some difficult decisions to try to conserve what they have.

Community Ambulance Association of Ambler (CAAA) Deputy Chief Jennifer Green said they’re not seeing a big increase in the number of calls, but they are seeing more calls for respiratory issues. 

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Normally, they would assess the situation and then put on masks or other equipment, if necessary, but with COVID-19, her crews have to go into any respiratory or cardiac call wearing full protective equipment.

“We just don’t have enough, so we’re running out,” she said. “We’re seeing too many patients, because they’re masking for every call, whereas we wouldn’t normally do that.”

The shortage isn’t just here — it’s across the country. While everyone’s doing all they can to get more, Green said for now, they’re having to take steps to preserve what they have. She’s been telling her crews to wear the same mask all day.

“I would never have thought that I’d have to tell my staff, ‘You get one mask for your shift, make it work,’ ” she said.

Registered nurse Maureen May, president of PASNAP, the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, says more needs to be done to inform and protect healthcare workers.

She says the union wants to be more involved in the state's response to the pandemic, and they spelled out their concerns in a memo to the governor's office on Tuesday.

"There is a PA Coalition COVID-19 response team, and they're at county and state levels. PASNAP would like to see someone who's directly involved at the bedside have a seat at that table," May said.

"We don't know what the preparations are. We are told just very short briefings, but of course we're looking to make sure we are prepared, and that means to have all necessary PPEs. If it's through the Federal Defense Production Act or any type of state executive powers or state legislation we would absolutely welcome that."

May, a working Temple University Hospital nurse, says not having enough PPE puts not only them at risk, but also their patients.

"We're working with immunocompromised patients, and we've been exposed, and we're told by occupational health: 'You've had an exposure. Continue to work, and if you get symptoms, call occupational health.' Meanwhile, they're also telling healthcare workers to quarantine themselves from their families, but you can continue to work."

She says it's clear there's a shortage of equipment for patients as well, to the point that hospital staff are converting neonatal ventilators into adult ventilators.

"And the respiratory department is learning how to use anesthesia ventilators, which is what they use in the operating room."

Some future health care workers are contributing to the PPE cause through a newly formed coalition called PPE 2 PHL. It’s nearly 150 members strong, mostly medical and nursing students, who cold-call businesses to locate and ask for PPE donations.

Terry Gao, a fourth-year med student at Jefferson’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College, helped spearhead the effort. She said being a part of a large group allows them to lean on each other and collaborate on ideas.

“Many of our students have contacts within their own research labs at their schools, so they are reaching out to those departments to figure out if they can get parts of equipment,” she said. “There is a lot of PPE that has come and can come from there. We have definitely reached out to different art schools.”

Those in need of the gear can make specific requests online. A courier service has been established for those wishing to donate, too.

“Nothing is too small,” Gao noted. “Yesterday we got a box of Band-Aids.”

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health is overseeing the distribution of the PPE to make sure the supplies go to area hospitals in need.

“We are accepting everything from scrubs to shoe covers to even hardware goggles that people may just even have in their own homes,” Gao added.

No one can predict how long the coronavirus pandemic will last, so CAAA’s Green said they have to stretch supplies the best they can. She’s grateful for any donations, but she noted another way to help is to listen to the stay-at-home orders.

“For the people out there listening: Stay home,” she said. “Please, just stay home. That makes our job easier. Stay home and wash your hands.”

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KYW Newsradio’s Hadas Kuznits, Jim Melwert and John McDevitt contributed to this report.