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Nancy is not entirely sure what has happened to the protective equipment that she and other nurses normally use in patients with high-risk infections. One day the N95 masks were in their usual place and were accessible to employees who needed them. Then they were locked in a supply room. And then: “They were just gone.”
Nancy, who asked me not to use her real name because she fears retaliation, is a nurse who works in the intensive care unit of a hospital south of Seattle. When I spoke to her on Saturday, her hospital hadn’t treated patients who tested positive for Covid-19. With the number of respiratory infections increasing in the Seattle region, Nancy believes it is only a matter of time. “It feels like you are standing and waiting for a hurricane to come in,” she said.
Whenever and wherever the storm of illness touches, nurses and other health professionals are some of the first to feel its effects. With so much still unknown about the transmission and progression of Covid-19, many feel that their hospitals and the government are not doing enough to protect them. Nurses have expressed particular fear and outrage at the lack of personal protective equipment or PPE. Some are meant to reuse a mask that is intended for single use only indefinitely. others use DIY fabric masks that a healthcare worker compared to medical interventions in ski gloves. With virus testing still limited, hundreds of healthcare workers have been quarantined for long periods of time, sometimes without payment, for exposure to symptomatic patients. “I’m going to work and there are tears in nurses and they’re scared and you don’t know how to comfort them,” said Nancy, who has been working in her field for three decades. “At this point there is so much fear of the unknown and a lot of trouble. We should be protected and we shouldn’t. “
The ramifications are serious not only for health workers and their families, but also for the entire health system: if enough medical personnel fall ill, it can affect the care of patients who are seeking treatment for all diseases and conditions, from viral infections to Heart attacks. In places where the pandemic was most severe, including China and Italy, thousands of health workers have contracted Covid-19 and some have died, including Li Wenliang, the doctor who was censored for warning of the disease early on in Wuhan. There were healthcare workers there three times more likely get sick than the general population. In Italy, about 9 percent of people with Covid-19 suffer from healthcare. according to the International Council of Nurses. At least 13 doctors have died in Italy, including one who spoke to the media about treating patients without gloves.