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Health care professionals say lack of equipment is putting them at risk

Nidhin Mohan, owner of Deer Park-based New Island

Nidhin Mohan, owner of Deer Park-based New Island Pharmacy, seen in 2017, is asking customers to call ahead before picking up prescriptions, so someone can meet them outside the front door. Credit: Johnny Milano

Medical professionals say an influx of protective equipment coming to hospitals, nursing homes and other sites from state and federal sources won't be enough to help health care workers as they handle the growing number of coronavirus cases.

The shortage has grown so dire that some nurses are making their own masks from fabric, plastic and coffee filters, said the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest nurses union, based in Washington, D.C. Concerns come as New York State seeks to address the lack of equipment while anticipating an increase in patients testing positive for the virus.

"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."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has pushed businesses in the state to make more of the equipment needed by doctors and nurses, saying the state would "pay a premium" for it.

The AFT said nurses were under “grave threat” without adequate personal protective equipment, such as impermeable gowns, gloves and goggles. The AFT represents nurses and other health care professionals as well as teachers and other school-related staff.

The union added that nurses in hard-hit areas are being asked to reuse respirators and in some cases downgrade their level of protection from a respirator to a surgical mask.

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“Nurses from across the country have reached out to us to tell their horror stories of making homemade masks to treat patients who tested positive for the coronavirus because their hospitals have either run out of N95 respirators or they didn’t make the ration cut," said Randi Weingarten, the AFT’s president.

“Asking nurses to use bandannas or scarves rather than deploying every asset of the federal government to help them is just immoral,” she added.

Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott said people need to be wary of any home-made medical protective gear such as masks.

“That’s not advised,” he said. “We are looking for masks that can help filter out the virus and those need to be properly tested and certified.”

Stony Brook University’s iCREATE lab is using 3-D printers to manufacture 800 face shields and is hoping to create up to 5,000 with additional supplies. Stony Brook University’s hospital personnel have reviewed the face shields and deemed them medically compliant, officials said.

Some hospital systems said they are receiving supplies but not enough for the expected surge in patients.

Northwell Health receved a “significant number” of N95 masks in recent days from the state, according to spokesman Jason Molinet. “Given the size of our health system, it’s not a permanent solution,” he said.

Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital has received or is scheduled to receive seven cases of surgical gloves, five cases of N95 masks, five cases of surgical masks and 95 cases of hand sanitizers from Nassau County OEM and New York State, according to spokesman Joseph Calderone.

“We remain in need of ventilators, N95 masks, disinfectant wipes, face shields, goggles and other supplies to meet pressing demands as the number of COVID-19 patients continues to increase each day," he said. 

Some health systems already have started to deal with sick or quarantined staff. For example, Northwell Health said over the weekend that it had 295 staffers who were either on paid sick leave or in self-isolation. Spokesman Terry Lynam said if the shortage became acute, the health system would work with staffing firms to add help. Northwell has about 72,000 employees.

NYU Langone didn't disclose how many staffers it had sick, but Jim Mandler, a spokesman at the Manhattan-based health system, said in an email "one major resource has been the spillover from postponing elective procedures. Our surgical caseload is down 70%, so we are reallocating staff from the ORs to assist in other areas."

NYU Langone didn't disclose how many staffers have been redirected to COVID-19 care.

"We also have reached out to senior clinicians and nurses among the NYULH staff who have had ICU experience/training to see if they can assist in ICU care, particularly in those areas that have been refitted for COVID overflow," he said. "Staffing agencies have been used on a limited basis."

Stony Brook University Hospital has brought in nurses from its ambulatory offices, where "we’ve seen significant declines in clinic visits. In addition, since we have canceled elective surgeries and procedures, we are shifting those staff, as well," said Lauren Sheprow, a spokeswoman at the hospital.

Sheprow added that the hospital has received "wonderful outreach from professional caregivers in the community who are generously donating their time to help us. Our medical students and students from our other health sciences schools are among those who have stepped up as well."

The governor on Monday also asked retired professionals to help. He said the state had received 30,000 responses as of Monday morning.

The lack of equipment and fear of getting sick also has led some pharmacies to shut down the front of their stores. Deer Park-based New Island Pharmacy is asking customers to call ahead before picking up prescriptions. An employee will meet the patient outside, said Nidhin Mohan, the pharmacy's owner.

"It's the only way for us to cut down on the chances that I or my employees get this," Mohan said. "I'm really anxious. The staff is nervous. We have a small number of gloves and face masks. I don't know what I'm going to do when this runs out."

Howard Jacobson, who owns three pharmacies in Nassau County, said "while we let people in, if they want to come in, we are pushing people to meet us at the curb."

Jacobson said his deliveries have jumped considerably. He added that his staff is running low on masks.

"Our supply is not plentiful, that's for sure," Jacobson said.
 

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