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What to Do If You’re Short on PPE During the Coronavirus Epidemic


As the coronavirus epidemic continues to overwhelm hospital systems across the country, many healthcare workers are being asked to reuse their personal protection equipment (PPE) when caring for patients. Others are being reprimanded for bringing in their own safety equipment, including face masks and shields, hazmat suits, and gloves.

With vital medical supplies becoming increasingly scarce around the country, many healthcare facilities have had to tighten, or loosen, their safety requirements. Some facilities are encouraging their workers to improvise on the job by bringing in their own PPE, while others have restricted the use of PPE to ration their dwindling supplies. However, dozens of different organizations and businesses are stepping up to help fill in the gaps, so nurses can find the gear they need to stay safe.

The healthcare pandemic is affecting everyone differently. If you’re in California or New York, you may have been stocking up on PPE for months, but other nurses may be just coming to terms with the reality of the pandemic. The situation will likely get worse in the weeks ahead, so nurses across the country should be preparing for potential PPE shortages just to be safe.

As a healthcare provider, if you are asked to remove or go without PPE while caring for patients, here’s what you need to know:

The Race for PPE Continues

While the need for equipment varies drastically around the country, some states have had to resort to extreme measures. For example, California currently projects it will need 50,000 additional beds and 10,000 ventilators in the weeks ahead. The governor is now asking citizens to donate used or broken ventilators, so manufacturers can get them working again. Other states have also started asking for medical supplies donations from the public. Multiple states have even entered a bidding war for supplies as retailers and manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand.

President Trump recently enacted the Defense Production Act to support the automotive manufacturer Ford in producing ventilators for those in need. The U.S. recently lifted tariffs on Chinese face masks and other PPE, but many have questioned the effectiveness of these masks even though some states and hospitals are purchasing them as a last resort.

If you do not have access to PPE, you may find yourself improvising on the job, but in the end, any means of protection may be better than nothing at all.

Why Some Providers Are Getting Called Out

When it comes to wearing PPE, healthcare workers should be at the top of the list. If they get infected, they might spread the virus to their patients, colleagues, or loved ones unknowingly, further overwhelming the healthcare system. Providers also need to stay healthy so they can continue caring for the growing number of virus patients. Older care providers or those with pre-existing health conditions should be even more concerned about their health, considering they tend to be most susceptible to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

However, some providers are getting in trouble for wearing PPE.

In El Paso, Texas, a 60-year-old anesthesiologist with asthma brought in his own N95 face mask to work. However, hospital officials told him to take it off because he was scaring the patients. He refused to take off the mask, fearing the virus may severely affect his health, but the facility responded by taking him off the rotation schedule. He was eventually reinstated after an investigation by NPR.

Nurses have had to delay the start of their shifts as they scrounge the facility for anything they can use to protect themselves. Providers are also getting in trouble for wearing PPE outside of caring for patients, such as in break rooms, restrooms, hallways, and other high-traffic areas.

Lower-income hospital workers, such as cafeteria staff, janitors, and servers, as well as highly trained therapists and translators are also being denied PPE on the job, with officials telling them “they don’t need them.”

Finding Your Own PPE

If you do not have access to PPE at work or are asked to go without, you may have to find your own source of protection.

If you are just starting to look for PPE, find online retailers that sell face masks, gloves, sanitary wipes and hazmat suits, such as, Grainer, or even Walmart. If you order online, it may take a little longer for your equipment to arrive as retailers struggle to keep up with demand. Avoid hoarding PPE, so other healthcare providers can find the gear they need.

You can try looking for PPE at local hardware stores, such as the Home Depot or Ace. However, the Home Depot has just halted the sale of N95 face masks, citing limited supplies. You can also reach out to local construction crews, industrial supply companies, and maintenance workers. Construction workers need to wear face masks on the job, so they might have some gear they can spare. Try contacting these businesses even if they are closed during the pandemic. Someone might be able to help you find the gear you need, especially during a public health crisis.

Try reaching out to local vocational schools, nursing programs, medical spas, tattoo shops, dental offices, specialty clinics, plastic surgeons, veterinary clinics and other businesses and professionals that may have extra PPE on hand during the crisis.

Use social media, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to organize a PPE drive in your community. Connect with friends and family members online to ask them to donate whatever PPE they may have lying around the house. To avoid overcrowding and in-person contact, encourage donors to leave their PPE at the door or in another secure location.

Several companies have started collecting PPE donations to keep healthcare workers healthy during the crisis, such as Find the Masks, Mask Match, PPE Link, and Providence, a non-profit healthcare system with facilities across the country. Reach out to these organizations to see if they can help you get the gear you need.

You can also reach out to your local or state government to see if they have any spare PPE. Many states and governments have issued state-wide calls for PPE donations.

If you know of a local company that may be interested in producing and manufacturing PPE during the crisis, refer them to one of these national organizations, so they can start getting face masks out the door. Project N95, Operation Masks, and Open Source COVID Medical Supplies are all looking for local companies to partner with.

Many of you have probably already tried some of these methods for securing PPE. Share your ideas and recommendations for nurses that are having trouble finding safety gear in the comments below.

Making Your Own PPE

The CDC is currently weighing whether to change its face mask policy for the general public. Currently, the CDC only advises those who are sick, older, or those who have a pre-existing condition to wear face masks in public, but telling everyone to wear a face mask may help limit the spread of the virus. However, encouraging everyone to wear masks would only put added pressure on PPE manufacturers.

To help limit the spread, many healthcare workers and individuals are making their own PPE. The CDC has yet to issue clear guidelines for making homemade PPE, but the New York Times recently posted their own instructions for making a homemade face mask. Use this article to make your own face mask with cloth.

Some individuals are using old T-shirts, scarves and loose pieces of fabric as face masks, but this will not give you the same level of protection as constructing your own mask. The mask should fit tight over your face to prevent the spread of germs.

What to Do If You Are Asked to Remove Your PPE

If you are asked to remove your PPE at work, you always have the option of refusing. You may be punished or reprimanded, but you can always invoke the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Whistleblower Protection Program if you face retaliation for wearing PPE on the job. Refer to your state’s whistleblower protection laws for healthcare workers to learn more.

While it is your duty to help your patients, you shouldn’t have to put your own life at risk to do your job. Do your best to find and use PPE on the job, but your facility may not have enough to go around. If you do not have access to PPE, do anything you can to reduce your chances of infection; talk to your employer about bringing in your own or using homemade safety equipment. Help is on the way as more companies invest in PPE manufacturing, so don’t lose hope.

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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