obtained by Douglas Harding
Editor’s note: Some sources in this story agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity out of fear of repercussions regarding their employment.
Amid the global pandemic caused by COVID-19, healthcare facilities across West Virginia are experiencing shortages of necessary masks and other essential personal protective equipment (PPE), placing healthcare workers on the frontlines of the fight against the virus—and their families—at greater risk of infection.
“I have to deep clean the infected rooms twice a shift,” Mollie Outland, a housekeeper at a nursing home in Kanawha County, said. “I’m being forced to use the same gown, mask and eventually shoe protectors because we don’t have enough for people to just take and throw away when done.”
Outland said four cases of coronavirus have been confirmed at the facility where she works, but none of the cases are the new strain of the virus responsible for the pandemic. She said those infected patients have been mostly isolated but not quarantined because the strain is not technically life-threatening. She said the patients each still share a room with one other patient.
“They hang the gowns on the inside of the (infected) resident’s room, and each time CNAs, nurses and housekeepers enter the room, we use the same one, knowing it has continuously touched basically everything in the room at this point; it’s scary” she said. “It feels like my safety doesn’t come first, and that’s disappointing.”
A caretaker in Putnam County who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the nursing home where she works is having PPE shortages as well, and she doesn’t know when more equipment will arrive.
“We ran out of masks last week,” she said. “The higher-ups keep telling us they will get some, but since everywhere has a shortage I doubt we will get any soon.”
The caretaker said she cares for clients by assisting them with their daily needs such as going grocery shopping, taking medications and practicing personal hygiene.
“I take care of a client with their every-day needs,” she said. “I take them out to grocery shop or to buy anything they need. I pass medication and basically live with them for 8-12 hours a day.”
She said being around clients and going out in public so regularly without PPE is concerning because she is especially vulnerable to infection and goes home to her fiancé each day.
“I’ve been having panic attacks every night because I’m afraid of bringing something home to my fiancé,” she said. “And where I have autoimmune diseases, it’s scary to know that if I would get it, I probably wouldn’t live because my immune system is so weak and couldn’t fight it off.”
An anonymous source who works as a nursing assistant at a hospital in Kanawha County said masks at her facility are being rationed strictly, forcing workers to rely on homemade masks and only use certain equipment when they knowingly come into direct contact with COVID patients.
“I wore the same surgical mask all day today because I wasn’t on a COVID floor,” she said. “This is concerning because I don’t feel protected by the surgical mask. Only if we treat a COVID patient do we get the N95 masks (and other equipment). That makes me feel protected.”
She said workers check their temperatures daily before work to ensure they are not sick and to avoid spreading infection.
“We work with what we have,” she said. “I wouldn’t even care to reuse masks, but I would at least like the proper mask.”
The nursing assistant said she and other workers bring extra clothes to work each day and wash their work clothes often to avoid spreading infection to others outside the facility.
“We’re scared of getting this virus, for sure, and taking it home to our families and children,” she said. “Some of us change our clothes before we leave or as soon as we get home and throw our scrubs in the washer to make sure our families are safe.”
A respiratory therapist who also works at a hospital in Kanawha County and spoke on the condition of anonymity said the facility where she works is rationing masks and has divided the building into sections for “dirty patients” and sections for “clean patients.”
“We are short on N95 masks and surgical masks,” she said. “It’s very concerning to us. At first, I just kind of blew it off, but now I’m getting scared.”
She said she is especially fearful because initially it seemed the youth were less at-risk to infection, but in recent days young people with no prior history of respiratory-related problems also have been coming in sick and are being put on ventilators.
“It’s a scary situation,” she said. “I’m concerned we are not prepared for what is about to happen. I don’t think anyone is. I’m hoping for this to pass quickly and without harming many people.”
A nurse who works at a hospital in Cabell County and spoke on the condition of anonymity said that despite sending out a press release soliciting donations of necessary equipment, administrators at her facility have told workers that “supply numbers are up.”
“They are being misleading,” she said. “We are already being told to reuse surgical masks, and we don’t get N95 unless the patient has already tested for COVID.”
Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected]