Front-line heath workers push back against CDC mask guidelines for coronavirus

Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 112,000 health professionals, described the delays in procuring additional equipment — when officials knew from the experience of other countries this would be a problem — as unethical.

“If I sound angry,” she said, “I am.”

President Trump has announced steps in recent days to address the nation’s dwindling supplies of protective equipment for health care workers — authorizing the release of emergency stockpiles, and working with manufacturers to ramp up production in a wartime-like effort. But health care workers on the front lines are voicing frustration — and panic — that such help may arrive too late. If they can’t stay healthy, they say, the whole system will fall apart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week loosened its minimum requirements for how personal protective equipment should be used in times of shortages, suggesting that certain items be used only in risky procedures, or for more extended periods of time. As a last resort, the CDC suggested, bandannas could be used in place of masks.

Health care workers say those guidelines are insufficient to protect them against a virus as deadly as covid-19. In addition, they say more test kits needs to be made available to them to catch infections among doctors and nurses earlier.

One doctor in New York City, an internist in her 30s who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said her facility was now following those guidelines and that surgical masks, rather than the more protective N95 masks, were being used in most cases. She said she was reprimanded for wearing a left-over N95 mask because it might make others feel their surgical masks were inadequate. She added that now even those surgical masks may be running low.

“There is huge concern that we’ll run out of everything soon,” she said, noting that the number of confirmed covid-19 cases in New York had doubled overnight.

Some health care systems have gone even further to conserve supplies.

At Beth Israel Lahey Health in the Boston area, workers were told this week of “extreme shortages” and asked to wear only single-use protective equipment “for as long as they can tolerate during their shift.” They were also asked not to discard any surgical masks, N95 respirators or eye protection but to place the used ones in special bins to be saved.

“BILH is investigating potential options for mask sterilization and future repurposing,” according to a copy of the memo obtained by The Post. “This is not currently active but we are storing supply in the interim.”

Amid the shortages, doctors across the country are scrambling to secure their own masks. The New York City doctor said a physician friend in Seattle had mailed her half a dozen N95 masks. When another doctor with a relative in Taiwan said she had a line on some N95 masks, other physicians eagerly asked for 50 or 100.

“She said, I got a guy selling them for $3 a piece, who’s in?’” the New York City doctor said with a laugh. “It sounds like a drug deal.”

Standards set by medical associations say that health care staff conducting testing for covid-19 should have gloves, gown, goggles, disposable face shields, and N95 masks — which are fitted and can filter extraordinarily small particles like viruses. But at many testing sites, they are given only looser-fitting surgical masks.

For workers helping with high-risk procedures such as intubations of infected patients, which sends sprays of droplets into the air, power air-purifying Respirators or PAPRs are recommended. But as the number of patients increases, many hospitals have put in to place protocols that allow for the use of N95 masks in these situations.

The American Medical Association said in a statement on Friday that this situation of workers wearing a single mask for a full day and cleaning them or sewing their own protective gear is not sustainable, and called on the Trump administration to “pull every lever” to secure supplies.

“Anything less is unacceptable at this critical juncture,” AMA president Patrice A. Harris said.

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