Mary Turner is a registered nurse on North Memorial Health Hospital’s COVID-19 floor. Despite the courage it takes to care for severely ill and infectious patients, her voice trembled as she testified recently during a Minnesota Senate virtual hearing about a critical challenge she and other nurses face — the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
The gear protects providers from contracting this mysterious new viral illness and potentially bringing it home to their families. It includes disposable gowns, gloves, plastic face shields and N95 face masks, with the last two vital to guard against droplets exhaled by a patient. PPE is still in such short supply that Turner has to reuse her face mask and plastic shield for multiple shifts instead of discarding it as she typically would.
“We are at war. We are the nurses. We are on the front line. We head into the hospitals every day with what little PPE we have and that’s our armor,” said Turner, who is president of the Minnesota Nurses Association. “But you know something? We’re ready to do battle with this virus knowing that … is why we became nurses.”
The emotional testimony had an impact on state lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka promised Turner the Legislature will do everything it can to help.
Minnesotans need to understand what a national disgrace PPE supply has become. This shouldn’t have happened, especially in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It’s unconscionable that those who care for patients in hospitals and in long-term care facilities do not have the equipment to do their jobs safely.
A report released last week by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services made it clear that this problem is severe and national in scope. Officials surveyed hospitals from March 23-27. “Hospitals reported that widespread shortages of PPE put staff and patients at risk. Hospitals reported that heavier use of PPE than normal was contributing to the shortage and that the lack of a robust supply chain was delaying or preventing them from restocking PPE needed to protect staff.”
Hospitals were also skeptical, with good reason, that help was coming from what’s known as the national stockpile. Pandemic preparedness planning has been underway for years by federal and state health officials. The stockpile was a key asset meant to prevent shortages.
Troubling findings issued Wednesday from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform suggest that states and health care providers are on their own for supplies. A statement from the committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the “stockpile is depleted.”
A report from the committee also details the haphazard distribution of stockpile goods. For example, Vermont, with a population of under 700,000, was slated to receive double the number of N95 masks (about 121,000) during the last stockpile shipment than Minnesota, population of 5.6 million.
Minnesotans also should be alarmed about the PPE shortage at long-term care facilities. Caregivers often don’t have enough equipment even though their aging and often ill residents are especially susceptible to COVID-19.
Of the 11 new deaths reported Thursday in Minnesota, 10 were residents of long-term care facilities. And yet the PPE shortage is so severe that the state sometimes isn’t able to provide recommended amounts to those providers who have had a confirmed case and need heightened infection control measures. As Sholom CEO Barbara Klick lamented to an editorial writer, facilities like hers are often “at the end of the food chain” for supplies.
Klick is calling veterinarians, dentists and car repair shops to find more medical-grade masks for her two Twin Cities senior care campuses. Ecumen is asking the public to drop off homemade cloth masks as donations so it can conserve PPE. Pioneer Care in Fergus Falls is doing the same and has even provided fabric to make the masks.
“We understand that the supply chain that does exist is prioritized to the [hospitals]. That’s understandable, but where does that leave us?” said Nathan Johnson, Pioneer Care’s CEO. “We’ve got a critical role to play in our health care system, too. It’s got a lot of us on pins and needles.”
Right now, the focus must be on containing COVID-19. But when the virus recedes, it’s critical to understand why the federal stockpile ran dry and prevent it from happening again. The bright spotlight and hard questions that congressional hearings would bring are in order. As representatives of a state that’s home to world-class medical centers, Minnesota’s delegation should lead the charge.