With the coronavirus spreading and the death toll in the U.S. now nearing 1100, what will we do if doctors, nurses, technicians and other healthcare workers get sick from the virus and no longer can work?
In Italy, thousands of doctors and nurses have contracted the coronavirus, in China several young doctors have died, and in the UK, doctors are threatening to quit because they don't have enough safety equipment to protect themselves. And, in the U.S. some emergency room doctors have tested positive, while others believe becoming infected is inevitable.
In fact, some are preparing their wills, just in case.
Why is this happening?
First, the virus is incredibly contagious and so those who must deal with it every day are at especially high risk -- even if they have the personal protective equipment (PPE) that is in desperate short supply.
Second, they don't have that equipment because America was not prepared, despite early warnings that were simply ignored by the Trump administration.
And third, some hospital policies reportedly prevent healthcare workers from using PPE for fear the situation will get even worse.
The online publication FierceHealthcare.com reported March 19 that a shortage of PPE is the biggest concern for hospitals and healthcare workers around the country, and that concern has been stressed repeatedly as the coronavirus outbreak continues to worsen. Gowns, masks, gloves are needed to protect healthcare workers from infection. They are not luxury items. Without them, doctors and nurses will get sick and some will die. It is that simple.
"Protecting all workers is the patriotic and moral requirement of this moment," Service Employees International Union (SEIU) international president Mary Kay Henry said in a letter Monday to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar.
The letter demanded that testing, treatment, and PPE be provided to American healthcare workers and urged the federal government to release stockpiles of masks in the Strategic National Stockpile, use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to produce needed equipment for healthcare workers and hospitals, and provide childcare and other services for frontline workers.
What has been President Trump's response to all of this?
"We're not a shipping clerk," he said as he told governors to get their own medical supplies last week.
“Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work, and they are doing a lot of this work,” Trump said. “The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk.”
Meanwhile, supplies are so short that some hospitals are refusing to allow doctors and nurses to wear PPE when treating potentially infectious patients to save supplies for when the situation gets even worse.
That disturbing information comes from MedPage Today, an online publication for healthcare professionals, in an article by Dr. Rebekah Bernard.
She said, "To conserve supplies, elective surgical cases are being postponed or canceled. But even in cases that can't be delayed, like childbirth, doctors are being told they are not allowed to wear masks. An obstetrician told me that physicians in her group received an email from administrators to tell them that they would not be permitted to wear masks during deliveries -- something they routinely do to prevent splashes of blood and amniotic fluid getting into their eyes, nose, and mouth."
Dr. Bernard continued:
"But even more concerning...are system policies restricting the use of PPE that healthcare workers have purchased themselves. I spoke with a hospital physician who spent $400 to purchase his own reusable respirator with an attached face shield for protection while treating patients, only to be told he was not permitted to wear his own PPE."
The doctor told Dr. Bernard that "At a staff meeting, the hospital CEO told us that we were not allowed to bring our own supplies -- that we had more than enough for the hospital's needs."
"The doctors were later given one disposable N95 mask and told to make it last for the entire day," she wrote.
According to Dr. Bernard's report, physicians were told that failing to comply would result in them being sent home without pay, and, indeed, one specialist was sent home for refusing to take off his face mask.
As Dr. Bernard wrote in her article, "With a healthcare system top-heavy in managers (data show that there are10 administrators for every one doctor), one would expect hospitals across the U.S. to be well prepared to fight the current coronavirus pandemic. After all, isn't it the responsibility of these well-paid corporate executives to prepare and plan for various health crises that experts have been predicting for years? Unfortunately, many organizations are far from prepared and are even enacting policies likely to put both healthcare workers and patients at risk."
All of this is disturbing, to say the least. It's bad enough that Trump and his shortsighted administration have bungled the entire coronavirus catastrophe, but for hospitals to compound it by apparent lack of preparedness and policies that put doctors and nurses at risk, is unfathomable.