While we’re all trying to come to terms with the harsh realities of life during a global pandemic, the medical professionals on the frontlines don’t have that luxury. Thousands of people are seriously ill, and it’s our doctors and nurses who are working around the clock to care for them.
These and other health care workers are risking their own lives because many do not have the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to stay safe. For weeks, the pleas of these workers have largely gone unanswered.
And while they’re waiting for the masks, gloves, and other essential supplies they desperately need, the numbers of infected people have skyrocketed. As of April 2, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the total cases of COVID-19 in the United States as more than 200,000. More than 4500 people have died. That includes health care workers like New Jersey emergency room doctor Frank Gabrin, who died in his husband’s arms a week after testing positive for the new coronavirus, reported CNN.
One nurse, Imaris Vera, who lives in Chicago, managed to buy her own N95 mask to wear at work. It’s the respirator recommended by the CDC for healthcare professionals because it captures 95% of air particles when worn correctly. But Vera alleges that her manager told her she wasn’t allowed to wear it, even when caring for a COVID-19 patients in an ICU unit that had been converted to a designated COVID unit.
Vera, who has more than three years of experience working in trauma, post-operative, cardiac, medical, surgical, and full-time critical nursing care, felt that she had no option but to quit her job. She explained in an emotional Instagram video, uploaded on March 30, that she was trying to keep herself safe and looking out for “family members who have pre-existing conditions” because “they wouldn’t get a ventilator” if they contracted COVID-19 from her.
“I had my own N95 mask,” Vera says in the video. “I told my manager I understand we’re short on supplies. But let me protect myself. Let me feel safe. I have family that I have to come home to. And the way things are looking, this isn’t going to get any better. America is not prepared. And nurses are not being protected.”
Vera alleges that her manager told her, “We’ve kept up with the CDC and it is only when the COVID patient has any aerosol type treatments like a ventilator, nasal cannula, nebulizer etc. that it’s airborne… otherwise it’s droplet…”
She also claims that nurses who are treating COVID-19 patients aren’t wearing masks in the hallways of the hospital where she worked when giving reports, and that they have been instructed to reapply and reuse masks stored in brown paper bags after treating those patients.
Sadly, Vera’s experience is common. A nurse in Missouri resigned after being told she couldn’t wear an N95 mask she’d bought herself. Not only are health care workers not getting the protection they need, but some are also being silenced by their employers. In California, a nurses union said a hospital consortium in the state threatened to fire nurses who wore their own masks to treat COVID-19 patients on the grounds of “insubordination.”
But more and more frontline workers are speaking out. On April 2, nurses rallied at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, the US epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, demanding N95 masks, gowns, and other essential PPE. “I am a helper,” one nurse said. “But now I am a helper who needs help.”
On April 1, Vera gave an update of her situation on Instagram Stories, explaining that she hasn’t turned her back on nursing. “I am currently looking for other COVID Nursing jobs where I know I’ll feel SAFE & not be told I can’t wear my own mask/PPE,” she wrote. “I QUIT for my safety and the safety of my family. I SHARED for the safety of Nurses and HCPs all over America. We can’t work to save lives if our lives start dwindling. (sic)”
Meanwhile, after weeks of repeatedly saying that ordinary citizens don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick, the CDC may be back-tracking. According to Anthony Fauci, MD, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, the CDC is seriously considering recommending all Americans wear masks.
In an interview with CNN on March 31, Dr. Fauci said “a much more broad community-wide use of masks outside of the health care setting is under very active discussion at the task force.”
However, he also echoed the fears of many—that recommending public use of masks would make the supply situation even more dire for those who need them most.
“You don’t want to take masks away from the health care providers who are in a real and present danger of getting infected,” Dr. Fauci said.