The Race to Keep Health Care Workers Protected From Covid-19

The hospitals are trying to catch up. Nurse practitioner Peggy Desiderio, who works at Mount Sinai’s Morningside location, says the protective gear situation there isn’t sufficient, but that access has improved as frontline medical workers have asked for additional supplies. “I’m not saying that it’s great, or that it’s going to last forever, or that we won’t get shortages,” she says. “But they’re listening.” (Mount Sinai did not respond to a request for comment.)

However, many New York hospital workers continue to eye their limited equipment with worry. Recently, doctors and nurses at Queens’ Elmhurst Hospital Center began speaking out about the conditions they are facing as a surge of critically ill patients arrive. Benjamin Laitman, an ENT resident at Elmhurst, has seen the strict budgeting of protective gear firsthand. “It’s a crisis mode,” he says. The hospital isn’t out of anything yet, but the scarcity is an enormous preoccupation. “We have it because we’ve been rationing it.”

There is a sense of doom among many of the frontline workers in New York. “I sent my husband and child away,” says a nurse at a large New York hospital, who asked not to be identified. She walks to work and stays inside when she’s off the clock to avoid infecting others, getting meals dropped off, but cannot help feeling distressed over the likelihood of widespread, devastating illness among her peers. “Who do they think are going to come to take care of the patients if we get sick?” she asks.

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This is a question obsessing large swathes of the country. As WIRED reported in February, some parts of the American health care system were already experiencing backorders for personal protective gear before the outbreak began in the United States. Since the supply chains for masks and respirators, in particular, are centered in China—according to data compiled by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 95 percent of the surgical masks and 70 percent of the ventilators used in the US are made there—the equipment supply was disrupted by the coronavirus even before it spread globally.

Domestic companies like Prestige Ameritech, the country’s largest mask maker, have scrambled to pump up production. The Minnesota-based manufacturing giant 3M intends to make a billion masks by the end of the year. For now, though, the demand outstrips current supplies.

Meanwhile, grassroots efforts from concerned citizens have also sprung up around the country. In Los Angeles, film director Lulu Wang leveraged her popularity to help a friend organize a PPE drive. The effort found supplies in unexpected places. “One of our first donations was a special effects company,” Wang says. Melanie Ensign, who helps coordinate the new nonprofit MasksForDocs, says that the masks they’ve sourced have come from a variety of donors, including art studios. Medical students Mericien Mendoza and Gaby Mayer, who helped coordinate PPEtoNYC, a New York–based campaign, say volunteers cold-called businesses they suspected might have gear in storage, like nail salons.

And some physicians, nurses, and other hospital and urgent care workers are receiving individual donations from friends and family. “I personally have a number of kind friends who have mailed me things from around the country,” Schechter-Perkins says. She has received masks, including ten N95 respirators. “I’m planning to bring those into my hospital and share them with my emergency department group.”

Stockpiles of all sizes are popping up and getting redistributed. Disaster preparedness company Judy, which includes N95 masks in its kits, donated 25,000 masks to New York State, for instance, while the Service Employees International Union located a whopping 39 million N95 masks from a distributor who will sell them to hospitals around the country.

Even with the outpouring of resources, though, health care workers are yearning to be prioritized by the government. As they ration and plead for help on the frontlines, the Trump Administration has shown a lack of understanding about the immediacy of the problem. After New York governor Andrew Cuomo said around 30,000 ventilators were required for proper care in the state’s outbreak, for example, the president scoffed. “I don’t believe you really need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Thursday, the same day his administration faltered on moving forward with a $1 billion partnership to produce tens of thousands of units. “You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’” Trump seemed to reverse course on Friday, tweeting that GM and Ford should “start making ventilators now!”

This is not the kind of behavior frontline health care workers are calling for. “Ideally there would be some direction from a federal level,” Schechter-Perkins says. “That lack of top-down attention makes it seem as though this is not a national priority. It leads health care workers, frontline health care workers, to feel really exposed, really vulnerable, and really unprotected.”

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