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Doctors and nurses have been forced to work without proper gear as supplies dwindle and coronavirus cases rise

By Rachel DeSantis
March 24, 2020 02:12 PM
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Credit: Win McNamee/Getty

Healthcare professionals across the country are on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak without the gear needed to properly protect themselves amid a nationwide shortage of medical supplies.

“We are at war with no ammo,” a surgeon in Fresno, California told The New York Times of the dire situation.

FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor announced Tuesday that the Trump administration will soon put the Defense Production Act in place, which will help speed up the production of equipment needed amid the outbreak, Politico reported. Gaynor said the act will help access about 60,000 test kits, and that the federal government will order 500 million personal protective masks.

But medical professionals say they’ve already been forced to work without the necessary gear, like nurses who have had to wear the same mask more than once, and anesthesiologists like Dr. Faezah A. Bux in Kentucky, who has been working without proper masks or eye gear.

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“Nurses are being asked to actually reuse masks, including surgical masks, which provide no protection,” Executive Director of National Nurses United Bonnie Castillo told CBS News. “And as more get sick and have exposure, we get sidelined, and then who’s there to take care of the patients?”

Citing health officials, the Times reported that respirator masks can be used for eight hours, but should then be thrown away after treating an infected patient. Some doctors, however, have reportedly been forced to spray masks with Lysol, then use them again.

Physicians at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan told the outlet they were down to a one-week supply of respirator masks, though they hoped they’d receive more soon.

The lack of gear echoes the situation in Italy, where a doctor named Marcello Natali died on Wednesday after testing positive for coronavirus and battling double pneumonia, the Washington Post reported. Natali did not have any protective gloves to wear at work, and became one of at least 13 doctors in the European country to die while treating patients.

As the number of coronavirus cases in the United States continues to climb — there were at least 43,499 confirmed cases as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the Times — and the supplies dwindle, some hospitals have had to get crafty.

Nurses in Boston told the Post they’ve used racquetball eyewear to protect themselves, while other hospitals have made supplies themselves using materials bought at Home Depot and craft stores.

Zaheer Shah, a primary care physician in Arizona, told CBS This Morning it was a “national shame” that some healthcare professionals were even being forced to wear bandanas in place of masks to help shield themselves from respiratory droplets from infected patients.

The Centers for Disease Control issued an update last week saying healthcare professionals could consider using bandanas and scarves in place of face masks as a “last resort,” but that caution should be exercised in doing so, as their ability to protect their wearers is “unknown.”

“It’s the first time we’ve ever been truly scared to come to work,” Dr. Cornelia Griggs, a New York City surgeon, told CBS This Morning. “I’m embarrassed to say, but prior to this, my husband and I had never gotten around to writing a will, but this weekend that became one of our to-do list items.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.