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Underprepared and No Facemask: What It’s Like to Be on the Front Lines of the Coronavirus


The number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. is quickly rising as more states respond to this emerging public health crisis. Both Washington state and California have declared a state of emergency due to the outbreak. Nurses and healthcare workers up and down the west coast are working around the clock to contain the virus. However, many of them feel unprepared for the task at hand.

A new report from the New York Times shows that many facilities lack the training and protective gear they need to properly care for patients who have tested positive for the virus. Some nurses and healthcare workers don’t have access to respirators and hazmat suits, while others aren’t sure how to use them. Few facilities have quarantine protocols in place for handling and transporting infected patients.

See what it’s like to be on the front lines of the response to the coronavirus.

Protective Gear in Short Supply

Protective gear continues to be in short supply around the country. Mike Bowen, executive vice president of Texas-based Prestige Ameritech, one of the few manufacturers of respirators and surgical face masks still making them in the United States, recently told news reporters that he’s received requests for a billion and a half face masks in the last few weeks alone. He concludes by saying there simply aren’t enough face masks made in America to deal with the outbreak.

Nurses on the west coast are feeling the effects. Many healthcare providers across California and Washington have said they have been asked to continue working and caring for patients without protective gear. Some nurses have been given surgical masks, but they only do so much to prevent the spread of the virus.

Nurses have been begging for N95 respirators instead, which protect the user from all airborne particles, including those that may lead to infection.

Those responding to the outbreak often have to ask their managers or supervisors for a N95 facemask instead of carrying them around on their supply carts. This extra step can delay access to protective gear that could prevent the spread of infection.

Lack of Training

In other cases, nurses and doctors simply don’t know how to use the protective gear they’ve been given. Many have been asked to go online and search YouTube tutorials for instructions on how to wear and use this gear. Gerard Brogan, the director of nursing practice at the California Nurses Association, commented on the situation: “It used to be that you’d get a full day training. Now, they will send a nurse and doctor to the Internet to learn how to don and doff a hazmat suit.”

Some nurses have even faced pushback and criticism for raising concerns about their facility’s lack of preparedness. One nurse from Tenet Healthcare in Orange County who commented on the situation anonymously, fearing retaliation, recalls asking her supervisor what she should do if a coronavirus patient walked into the ER, and the doctor ridiculed staff members who raised concerns.

She went on to say, “It’s been pretty disturbing what is happening. Some doctors have been walking through the hospital for weeks with respirator masks. Others have been brushing it off like, ‘If you think this is a big deal, you are a conspiracy theorist and you are weak.’”

Handling and Treating Infected Patients

Other nurses have commented on their facility’s lack of quarantine protocols. Ms. Managhebi, a clinical nurse in California, asked her hospital to lay out specific procedures for handling and moving coronavirus patients, just like they did with Ebola. She recalls having to follow highly detailed instructions every time they had to lift or move an Ebola patient to and from the elevator. But when it comes to the coronavirus, she said, “They responded to our request and said it wasn’t necessary at this time.”

Some nurses were asked to self-quarantine after potential exposure to the virus, but then they were asked to come back in for work when the facility was shorthanded. This could have led to dozens of additional infections.

Some staff members aren’t receiving any instructions in terms of preventing the spread of infection once they leave their respective facilities. Healthcare providers are becoming increasingly worried that they may spread the virus to their friends and loved ones without their knowledge.

Other nurses have been asked to use their paid personal leave time to cover periods of mandatory quarantine. However, some have worried that putting too many nurses in quarantine could lead to staff shortages, especially in California and other states with strict nurse-patient staffing ratios.

Healthcare workers are most at risk of contracting the virus. At least eight healthcare workers have already been infected in the U.S., including three at a hospital in Vacaville, CA and five at the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland, WA, just outside of Seattle.

Protect your staff from infection and start putting together a response plan today before infected patients start showing up at your door.


Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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