As supplies grow scarce in New York City, medical workers fear becoming patients themselves

NewYork-Presbyterian emergency room sign. | Cindy Ord / Getty Images

NEW YORK – Medical workers at the front of New York City’s growing coronavirus emergency are raising the alarm that they will soon need treatment without additional equipment and stricter protocols.

The city is now the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the United States. 12,339 residents are infected, and approximately 17 percent of these cases were hospitalized on Monday morning. The number of hospital stays is expected to peak in the next 40 days, although hospitals have been relying on personal protective equipment for the past few weeks to prevent healthcare professionals from contracting the infectious disease.


Doctors who have spoken to POLITICO have asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation and, in some cases, to avoid being caught for violating confidentiality agreements.

“Doctors go in [to Covid-19 units] without washing your hands properly and without getting on gloves, ”said a NYC Health + Hospitals / Bellevue employee. “Doctors become patients in every hospital system in New York City.”

The lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) has forced workers to reuse disposable masks and wipe face shields with bleach wipes – according to employees in the city’s health systems, supplies are running low even in the best-equipped hospitals.

“It’s really, really, really bad. I got to work last night and there is a brown bag with a face mask and an N95 mask for each nurse, ”said a nurse on Mount Sinai. “There are trash cans to recycle the masks. We’ll be going out soon.”

Due to the lack of equipment, frontline medical personnel are at risk of being exposed to the virus, which can take them to the hospital or stay home for weeks when they recover.

Three nurses who spoke to POLITICO said they worked between 12 and 15 hours on three to five consecutive days. While overtime is not mandatory, they expect either the state or their hospitals to begin implementing this directive soon.

“It only gets worse with an influx of patients,” said the nurse from Mount Sinai. “We still don’t have enough workers.”

On Mount Sinai in South Nassau, a staff member said Long Island Hospital had not done a thorough cleaning in common areas such as break rooms where medical professionals were “shoulder to shoulder”.

“I’m confused as to why the hospital works this way,” she said. “They will flood themselves with their own employees.”

NewYork-Presbyterian, Mount Sinai, and NYC Health + Hospitals – the city’s public hospital system – do not generally test their employees for Covid-19, although employees fear they will infect their families when they return from a shift or with a colleague work together who has the virus, they said.

“Hospital staff are exposed to potential Covid-19 infected patients and are officially instructed to continue working as long as they have no symptoms themselves, although we know that it is very possible to spread the virus without symptoms,” said one Healthcare professional at NYC Health + Hospitals. “You met this guideline because we had little staff at the start of the study.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio attempt to alleviate the nationwide shortage of personnel and supplies by calling retired healthcare workers to join a medical reserve and pushing the federal government for equipment.

“I contact all retired nurses, all retired doctors. I ask the medical faculties to provide their staff. Nursing schools to provide their staff, ”Cuomo said this afternoon at a press conference at the Javits Center where the Federal Emergency Management Agency has started building a makeshift 1,000-bed hospital. “We’re also addressing all registered health professionals across the state – over 600,000 – to ask them to be willing to join as reserve personnel.”

Cheryl Wischhover, a beauty and wellness reporter who worked as a nurse at New York’s Presbyterian / Columbia University Medical Center until 2009, received an email from the governor’s team that asks for it temporarily supplement the state’s health care workforce.

“Technology, drugs and protocols have changed a lot over the past decade,” she said in an interview. “None of this makes me the best person to be at the forefront.”

The former pediatric nurse said she was still considering the request, although it would make it more convenient to wipe her nose in a hospital tent than working in adult patient facilities that are connected to ventilators.

“I’m in my late 40s, of course I’m scared,” she said, “can I take care of other patients and rescue nurses?”

Hospital personnel are also placed in situations that an employee describes as “uncomfortable”, such as treating Covid-19 patients with little to no training in how to treat its effects.

“So far, they have been trying to outshine people on these critical care issues,” said a New York City Presbyterian / Weill Cornell Medical Center employee. “It will be something you have to learn on the go.”

Five medical professionals said the number of mental health workers among health workers is gradually increasing.

“This will be the most catastrophic event that has ever happened in our lives,” said New York-Presbyterian / Weill Cornell employee. “In the eyes of my colleagues there is a feeling of despair, panic and abyss that I have never seen before.”

Mount Sinai South Nassau staff member added: “It was a whirlwind of emotions in a pressure cooker situation and most of us just want to cry all the time, but we’re afraid if we start we can’t stop.”

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