As COVID infections surge across the country, hospitals and healthcare facilities face personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages that rival those at the start of the pandemic, with schools, clinics, and shelters adding to the demand. Two frontline healthcare workers discuss the PPE shortage crisis and how it’s affecting their ability to provide adequate care.
Get Us PPE continues to see a rise in daily requests for protective equipment and disinfecting agents. Health care systems and frontline health care workers continue to deal with shortages. These PPE needs, however, are no longer specific to traditional health care institutions. Essential services and institutions such as schools, daycares, shelters, social services, skilled nursing facilities, and small healthcare and dental clinics also significantly lack PPE access.
Get Us PPE spoke to two frontline workers who shared their stories in anonymity, reflecting an ongoing shortage threatened by a looming third wave. As COVID cases continue to climb, the little-known crisis for PPE like gloves and masks is of critical concern.
Caught off guard as a PPE shortage unfolded
I vividly remember that weekend in March when COVID enveloped the East Coast and changed my world forever. My brother was visiting from out of town. I had carefully scheduled our itinerary weeks prior–bottomless brunches and dinner reservations, expecting a fun and carefree weekend. It was my weekend off at a large hospital on the East Coast, where I worked as an inpatient physical therapist.
Hours before, news outlets and city leaders announced that restaurants, unessential businesses, and schools were to shut down after Sunday. Within one week, our city shut down entirely. In that short period, my predictable life changed significantly. Scheduled events, including hospital programming, education, and development, were canceled until further notice. Outpatient facilities closed, leaving many without jobs.
The city geared into emergency mode: I was issued “papers” establishing my role as an essential health care worker in this pandemic and instructed to carry them at all times for safe passage to and from work. As the pandemic scourged through my city, I witnessed a once stable community turn erratic. Every day, if not every hour, policies changed to adapt to a very uncertain and ever-evolving situation.
PPE shortages then and now
In the early days of the pandemic, the hospital assigned me PPE for a week. That meant reusing the same mask, gowns, face-shields, and shoe covers until they were soiled and broken. Since then, my daily access to PPE has improved. The hospital provides new masks, gowns, and shoe covers daily. However, the lack of access to adequate PPE and limited sanitizing solutions and wipes has led to concerns for health care worker safety. The face shields provided often break, and gowns often lack ties to safely fasten them, leaving health care workers at risk for infection.
Additionally, it remains difficult to access the correct size of mask or gown due to supply chain shortages. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities must equip their employees with safe, effective, and well-fitting PPE and appropriate sanitizing agents in a pandemic. However, due to the ever-changing nature of available sanitizing agents and access to safe and effective PPE, the infection risk remains high amongst healthcare workers. Fear and uncertainty permeate.
Now, eight months later, this pandemic ravages all corners of this country and our world. Despite significant effort and policy changes, hospitals and healthcare facilities nationwide continue to lack the PPE resources and disinfecting solutions to protect frontline workers in the wake of this surging pandemic.
This crisis is not going away. The numbers are continuing to rise. Since election week, our country is now logging greater than 100,000 new COVID cases daily. But this is not just a number. It is more than 100,000 PEOPLE daily.
As schools open across the country, PPE shortages migrate from healthcare centers to schools. Many schools donated their PPE stock to local frontline healthcare workers when school was closed in the spring. Now, in the fall, they still have a difficult time finding needed PPE for our campus school nurses. Due to the high demand for PPE across the country, supplies in schools are dangerously low, and many types of PPE are needed. School nurses are facing the pandemic head-on without appropriate gear.
A school nurse’s account of the PPE shortage
Throughout this pandemic, I have felt like nurses are expected to do their jobs without regard for personal protection. At the beginning of the pandemic, I watched as front line nurses equipped themselves with makeshift masks and garbage bags in an attempt to keep themselves and their patients safe. Now that school is back in session, school nurses are also frontline workers. We are not doing better than hospital workers were back in March.
District nurses have asked for proper PPE, but we were told nothing is available, “there’s a nationwide shortage.” Each nurse in our school district received three masks, which were marketed for construction use only, and are required to reuse these supplies or provide our own. I have vocalized my concern with my coworkers, department manager, nurse facilitator, and union. Many organizations and companies only sell PPE to “frontline agencies,” yet our district refuses to purchase on our behalf. As a private citizen, I am having difficulty purchasing suitable PPE with my own money. Sadly, the school districts have not addressed the health concerns of district nurses working in unsafe conditions.
We are nurses; we are not disposable. PPE is disposable; our lives are NOT!
School nurses are frontline workers. We deserve proper protection when caring for students. Unfortunately, many school nurses also lack knowledge of what constitutes appropriate PPE. This knowledge deficit, or unfamiliarity with proper PPE, may give the impression that since we work in a school and are not in a traditional healthcare environment, we deserve less. We are nurses; we are not disposable. PPE is disposable; our lives are NOT!
The PPE crisis progresses rapidly with a recent surge in COVID infections throughout the midwest and rural America, leaving frontline healthcare workers unprepared to face the challenge. At this time, the national demand for PPE is greater than 21,000,000 units. Get Us PPE has received over 16,000 requests for PPE and distributed more than 3,000,000 PPE units with the assistance of donations from organizations and individuals alike. Unfortunately, the need for accessible and appropriate PPE will continue to escalate within these essential organizations and services as the pandemic surges.