“We have known for six weeks, and there was literally zero response and preparedness,” echoed another physician from New York City. “The entire health-care system is a massive failure on a federal level.”
They also voiced frustration toward the CDC and its changing guidelines on personal protective equipment. A few weeks ago the CDC said physicians needed N95 masks. Later, it said surgical masks would suffice. This week, it said bandanas and scarves can be used as a last resort. The physicians said they believe these shifting guidelines are driven by equipment shortages, and not the actual safety of health-care workers.
Some health-care professionals have decided to be proactive. Esther Choo started the hashtag #GetMePPE, urging health-care workers to share pictures of their equipment and stories of their struggles so Congress will take action.
Susan Puckett, a physician assistant from Boulder, Colorado, emailed me to say she has been hiding one N95 mask in her desk because of a shortage. She told me she is going to borrow her husband’s woodworking gear and goggles from the garage, because her office doesn’t have any eye protection, either.
Furkan Shinaishin, an attending emergency-medicine physician at Inova Loudoun Hospital, is more desperate. “Because of our shortage of masks, we keep one N95 mask per shift. After we’re done seeing the patient, we put it in a paper bag with our name on it. When it’s time to see the next patient, we put the same mask back on. It’s frightening.” She said because there’s no way to sterilize the mask, she and her colleagues were told to put a surgical mask on top of the N95 mask.
Ken Harbaugh: The next, terrible phase of this crisis
She has been on immunosuppressants because she has lupus, and she has two small girls at home. “I’m hoping I’m lucky enough that I’m not going to get it,” she said. “I literally couldn’t sleep last night after my shift because I was in such a panic.”
Like soldiers in the trenches, many of the health-care workers I talked with believe they simply have to take care of one another. “A lot of us on the front lines are just thinking about tomorrow. The next 12 hours. The next four hours,” Jason Sample told me. He is the chief of acute, trauma, and critical care at New York–Presbyterian Queens.
“I don’t want people to forget that everybody who works in the hospital is part of the health-care team—from the janitors to the people in the laundry room to the people in the lab. We’re just doing our best to protect each other.”
He said New Yorkers need to pull together, as they have in previous crises. “Everyone right now needs to focus on being kind to each other,” he said, his voice breaking. “People were just walking the streets [after the 9/11 attacks] and people who would never talk to you were like, ‘What can I do to help?’ People were just kind to each other. I just hope if anything good comes out of this at all, that’s what comes out of it.”