Doctors, nurses and other front-line medical personnel are facing a critical shortage of protective gear as they combat the coronavirus outbreak, jeopardizing the health of doctors and their patients, doctors said Friday.
One newly formed group of doctors called “Mask a Hero” is sending out an SOS to Long Islanders to donate items such as medical grade masks if they have them.
Hospitals and other medical facilities are running low on N95 masks, impermeable gowns, gloves and face shields that protect doctors and others as they treat patients with the coronavirus, according to doctors on Long Island.
That, in turn, could also put patients and the general public at risk as it facilitates the spread of the highly contagious virus.
“The mood is increasingly frantic among a group of people, ER doctors and urgent care doctors, who by and large are the least alarmist group of individuals you will ever meet due to the nature of what they do every day,” said Dr. Robert Levy, who runs AFC Urgent Care in Farmingdale.
If too many doctors and nurses fall ill, he said, the health care system “may start to falter.”
One nurses union said its members are being put at risk by not getting protective equipment.
"Our registered nurse members are reporting shortages of personal protective equipment,” said Carl Ginsburg, a spokesman for the New York State Nurses Association, which represents 43,000 nurses statewide. "Should a surge of COVID 19 occur in the next two to three weeks, that shortage will result in serious health risks for nurses and will undercut care for patients."
Dr. David Podwall, a neurologist in Lake Success and vice president of the Nassau County Medical Society representing more than 6,000 doctors, said, “We need the masks … the hand sanitizers. … We’re running out and no one can buy it. People are hoarding it, some of the things like Purell, no one can buy it including doctors’ offices.”
Podwall said he is working with local politicians to try to secure some of the equipment.
“Our needs are in the thousands in terms of the masks,” he said.
Dr. Carole Lysaght-Moodhe, an internist in Lake Success and immediate past president of the Nassau County Medical Society, said in her office she is seeing patients even though she only has one mask at her disposal.
“We are the front line,” Lysaght-Moodhe said. “It is a concern, we don’t even have the personal protection to see patients. … We are still seeing patients with a cough and a fever with no way to protect ourselves.”
In some cases medical personnel are being asked to “ration” — that is, reuse, or use beyond the recommended time limit — some personal protective gear, Levy said.
He is frantically searching for supplies including overseas through the internet.
“I will run out some time in the next few weeks and I am unable to get any new supplies from any of the normal supply channels in the United States,” he said. If no new supplies come in, he will probably have to close his office.
Dr. Haran Heller, a cardiac anesthesiologist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, said there is “a little bit of panic” among medical professionals. “The situation I would say is dire.”
“It’s just like sending the military out to war without providing them the proper way to protect themselves. It’s like sending them out to war with no guns,” she said. “If the health care providers cannot protect themselves, they cannot help other people.”
Many of the N95 masks are manufactured in China, where production largely shut down after the coronavirus epidemic broke out, Heller and others noted. Production is just now resuming.
The supply shortage is “not Northwell,” Heller said, referring to the massive health agency that runs LIJ and other facilities in the region. “It’s the entire New York City, New York State, the entire country. This is on a global level. This isn’t on a Northwell level. Northwell is doing everything they can to get as many masks as they possibly can. ”
Some doctors and others have urged President Donald Trump and the federal government to address the shortage by forcing American industry to ramp up production or by tapping into the strategic national stockpile, a repository of critical medical supplies for public health emergencies.
“If we are not going to use that stockpile for this outbreak, then when are we going to use it?” Levy said.
Heller said she believes many nonmedical people bought their own N95 masks through the internet as the coronavirus epidemic quickly escalated and they panicked.
“Mask a Hero New York” is part of a national effort to help fill the gap by having people donate their masks to medical professionals.
As the virus exploded, “in hospitals nationwide masks ran out, physicians were getting sick, and they even described needing to use bleached bandannas and rags to wear in protection of themselves and their families,” Dr. Michelle Kars, a Long Island doctor who cofounded the group, said in a statement.
Levy said it is especially important to have adequate supplies of “personnel protective equipment” because so much of it is used.
“I am easily going through probably 30 to 40 sets of gloves, gowns, surgical masks every single day, and that’s just me,” he said. “My staff also needs some of that equipment, and our other locations also need that equipment.”
Dr. Neil Dasgupta, an emergency room doctor at Nassau University Medical Center, said, “obviously everyone is very stressed about it.”
So far his hospital has enough protective gear, but he doesn’t know how long it will last.
“As the cases ramp up we are very concerned and stressed that we may not be able to continue to protect ourselves,” he said.
With David Reich-Hale and Antonio Planas