As I started putting on my gloves in preparation to go and examine a suspected COVID-19 patient, I noticed that we only had three left in the box. “Is this all we have left?” I asked the medical assistant. She shrugged and said that there may be another box somewhere in another closet. Maybe someone can run to Home Depot and see if they got a new shipment, I thought. It’s mile one of this marathon and we’re already running low on supplies. It’s like going to war with no ammunition.
Since the arrival of this new virus, there have been a ton of new shortages that people would never have expected. It isn’t only the limited amount of testing kits that are available, but also the shortage of the PPE or personal protective equipment that has suddenly surged in use, in addition to the increase in demand from the public. I was shocked to find out that patients have actually started stealing them from us, taking gloves and masks from our supply cabinets and sneaking them into their purses. It’s bad enough that our government has failed to rise to the occasion of keeping up with the demand of these much needed supplies, but to have patients that we are supposed to be taking care of, actually steal the much needed supplies we need to to take care of ourselves.
Now, doctors are being instructed by the CDC to start wearing scarves and makeshift masks in the event that healthgrade masks are no longer available. Nurses are being asked to reuse their disposable surgical masks. Some hospital employees have resorted to slathering hand sanitizer on their PPE in order to reuse them. I hope that this news is as appalling to you as it is to me.
To be clear, surgical masks will not protect the average person from this virus. Surgical masks are only intended as a means of barrier protection. It is designed to prevent mucus and blood from splashing onto someone’s face. They are not designed to take on respiratory droplets and pathogens. Where surgical masks will help are on the frontlines, where doctors and nurses are in direct contact with sick individuals that can possibly cough and sneeze in their faces.
There is another type of mask out there called a respirator mask. The N95 respirator mask is capable of keeping pathogens out, but they can be extremely uncomfortable and difficult to wear for long periods of time. These masks are also in short supply, and I would still encourage those that do not work in healthcare to avoid hoarding them, as resources are becoming increasingly limited for those that truly need them.
Like I said, this is mile one of this marathon. After we get through this first hurdle, there is the shortage of ventilators that we are going to need to worry about. There’s also the shortages of medications like albuterol that are going to be exhausted. And let’s not forget the shortages in healthcare staffing should nurses, first responders, and doctors get sick.
The scariest prospect of running out of masks isn’t the fact that healthcare employees will no longer be able to protect themselves. The scariest prospect is that healthcare employees won’t be able to take care of you. This whole situation is potentially leading to an ethical crisis, where doctors and nurses may be forced to stop delivering treatment to sick individuals to protect themselves from risk of exposure. Healthcare workers have families too. When the limited stockpile of PPE is finally used up, do we risk exposing ourselves to a virus that may potentially kill ourselves or our family?
I understand the panic out there. I understand why masks are sold out everywhere you go. People are genuinely frightened of catching this virus. And if they weren’t scared when they first found out about it, the media has scared them into a frenzy about it. But it’s during these times that we need to become the best version of ourselves, not the worst.
What’s truly in short supply these days however, aren’t masks or gloves or even test kits. What’s truly lacking these days is a sense of communal responsibility, the lack of compassion and commitment to our fellow citizens. I’ve seen the reporting, showing people partying on the beaches. I’ve seen the Facebook threads that show Asians getting harrassed and attacked randomly for the shallowest of racist reasons. I’ve witnessed firsthand, the lack of sympathy from patients that have little regard for my own health as a healthcare worker. If we’re going to get through this, we need to be more demanding of ourselves to be better. There is no limit to what we can accomplish if we pull together.