The battle against the coronavirus pandemic is facing a perplexing problem. As protective equipment supplies like gowns and masks run low or run out, the risk of healthcare workers contracting the virus increases. This means they can infect patients and other workers before falling ill themselves. When they are unable to work, the shortage of medical workers unable to treat new patients becomes worse.  

One example is emergency room physician John Gavin, who normally works 12-hour shifts at Amite, Louisiana’s small, rural emergency room. At age 69 he is in a vulnerable age group. He likely picked up the virus during one of his shifts.

Gavin showed no symptoms just a few days before his diagnosis while the virus was incubating, but still contagious. On one of those days, the water had been shut off at the hospital that stopped the most effective measure to avoid the spread of the virus, hand washing. The staff had to rely on hand sanitizer. Gavin commented on his going to work, “So I went in and worked that shift. I’m sure I exposed everybody I saw.”

Gavin also said their supply of gowns and the N95 respirator masks designed to protect medical providers from airborne particles and liquids had run out. He said, “No, no, we didn’t have any of that. They offered us paper face masks, that’s it.”

He later compared wearing the paper masks to “putting up chicken wire on your windows to keep the mosquitos out”, a reference to the minute coronavirus being able to pass through the porous paper masks better suited for dust and larger particulates.

When the supplies of protective equipment run low, a philosophy of “something” is better than nothing prevails. At Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, the staff has been told to reuse surgical masks, presumably reused by the same person.

John Pearson, an ER nurse at Highland described it as, “…doing surgery with gloves on one patient and using the same gloves for another surgery. It goes against all our training and all the standards and practices we’ve been drilled in year over year.” Pearson said some co-workers have already fallen ill but he did not specify if their illnesses included COVID-19.  

In light of the nationwide shortage of supplies, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) downgraded its guidelines on how health workers should protect themselves. They can now use surgical masks instead of the N95 respirator masks and if no masks are available the use of homemade masks made from a bandanna or a handkerchief could suffice.

Across the U.S., medical providers have reported to ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that hospitals have changed protective equipment standards. Some hospitals are putting the N95 masks under lock and key to make sure they are available for patients that need intubation (a breathing tube inserted) and to prevent hoarding.

The “ripple effect” caused by health care workers being unable to work due to the coronavirus is certainly a concern of Beth Oller,  a family physician in rural Rooks County, Kansas, who said, “We are terrified of this taking out providers or our nurses.”