Into the COVID fray again, or for the first time

https://mailchi.mp/45f15de483b9/the-weekly-gist-october-9-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Addressing Workforce Needs for COVID-19 | University at Albany

While it sometimes seems like the coronavirus has been with us forever, it’s worth remembering that there are still parts of the country that are only now experiencing their first big spike in cases—that’s the nature of a “patchwork” pandemic working its way across a vast country.

One of our health system members in the Midwest, with whom we recently spent time, is in just this situation: they’re seeing their highest inpatient COVID census to date, just this month. As they shared with us, there are advantages and drawbacks to being a “late follower” on the epidemic curve. The good news is that they’re ready.

Back in March, like most systems, they stood up an “incident command center”, and began preparing for a wave of COVID patients, designating a floor of the hospital as a “hot zone”, creating negative pressure rooms, cross-training staff, developing treatment protocols, stockpiling protective equipment, and securing a pipeline of critical therapeutics and testing supplies. There was a moderate but manageable number of cases across the late spring and summer, but never to an extent that stressed the system.
 
Eventually, recognizing that they couldn’t ask their doctors, nurses, and administrators to stay on high alert indefinitely, they “stood down” to a more normal operational tempo, only to watch with dismay as the surrounding community seemingly forgot about the virus, and lessened precautions (masking, distancing, and so forth), wanting life to return to “normal”. And now, the post-Labor Day, post-return-to-school spike has arrived.

The challenge now is getting everyone, inside and outside the system, to stop talking about COVID in the past tense, as though they’ve already “gotten through it.” The preparations they’ve made are paying off now. Hospital operations continue to run smoothly even with a high COVID census, but the workforce is exhausted, and citizens aren’t stepping outside to bang gratefully on pots every night anymore.

Asking the team to return to war footing is no easy task, given the fatigue of the past seven months. A question looms: what is the trigger to restart “incident command”? As cases begin to increase again in some of the original COVID hot spots—New York, New England, the Pacific Northwest—healthcare leaders there will need to learn from the experiences of their colleagues in the newly-hit Midwest, about how to take an already virus-weary clinical workforce back onto the battlefield.

The N95 shortage America can’t seem to fix

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Nurses and doctors depend on respirator masks to protect them from covid-19. So why are we still running low on an item that once cost around $1?

The patient exhaled. She lifted her tongue for a thermometer. She raised her finger for a blood sugar test, and that’s when she started coughing. One cough can send 3,000 droplets into the air, one droplet can contain millions of coronavirus particles, and now some of those particles were heading for the face of emergency department nurse Kelly Williams.

The nurse inhaled. Strapped over her mouth and nose was an N95 respirator, the disposable filtering mask that has become the world’s most reliable and coveted defense against the virus.

N95s were designed to be thrown away after every patient. By this July afternoon, Williams had been wearing the same one for more than two months.

To get to her, the N95 had traveled from a British factory to a Baltimore warehouse, in a supply chain as tangled and layered as the web of microscopic fibers inside the mask’s filter.

It was purchased by Johns Hopkins Hospital, the famed medical institution that has tracked cases of the novel coronavirus around the world since the pandemic’s start. When its map of dots marking clusters of infections began to show pools of red across the United States, Hopkins was quietly unpacking a stock of personal protective equipment it had been building for over a year — a literal lifesaver when the onslaught of covid-19 cases led to a massive shortage of N95s.

Six months later, that shortage persists, leaving health-care workers exposed, patients at risk and public health experts flummoxed over a seemingly simple question: Why is the world’s richest country still struggling to meet the demand for an item that once cost around $1 a piece?

At Hopkins, nurses are asked to keep wearing their N95s until the masks are broken or visibly dirty. Williams, a 30-year-old from Georgia with a marathoner’s endurance and a nurse’s practicality, went into health care after working for three years in the corporate offices of retailers Abercrombie & Fitch and Under Armour. She understood supply chains. She believed that the makers of N95s, anticipating the pandemic’s eventual end, would invest only so much in expanding production. She believed it was her duty, on top of risking her life for her patients, to make her disposable respirator mask last through as many 12-hour shifts as she could.

When the country was short of ventilators, the companies that made them shared their trade secrets with other manufacturers. Through the powers of the Defense Production Act, President Trump ordered General Motors to make ventilators. Other companies followed, many supported by the government, until the terrifying problem of not enough ventilators wasn’t a problem at all.

But for N95s and other respirators, Trump has used this authority far less, allowing major manufacturers to scale up as they see fit and potential new manufacturers to go untapped and underfunded. The organizations that represent millions of nurses, doctors, hospitals and clinics are pleading for more federal intervention, while the administration maintains that the government has already done enough and that the PPE industry has stepped up on its own.

As the weather cools and the death toll climbs, America’s health-care workers fear that when winter comes, they still won’t have enough respirators. And the longer the shortage lasts, the longer N95s will remain largely out of reach for millions of others who could be protected by them — teachers and day-care workers, factory employees and flight attendants, restaurant servers and grocery store clerks.

While the pandemic that has killed almost 200,000 Americans drags on, Williams will keep trying to conserve her respirator, wearing it as she rushes in and out of virus-filled rooms, touches virus-shedding patients, and now, comforts a covid-positive woman who is having a coughing fit.

“How can I help you feel a little more comfortable?” Williams asked her patient, who was in her 80s. The woman was about to be admitted to the hospital. Her oxygen level was too low, so they had to run tubes of air into her nostrils. If her situation didn’t improve, a ventilator could come next.

This was the routine in the part of the emergency department Williams called “Covidland.” She’d just risked exposure to care for this woman, but she would never get to find out what happened to her.

She could only take a deep breath through her N95, roll her patients upstairs and hope that she would never become one of them.

‘The gauntlet’

Before the N95 was on her face, it was in a plastic wrapper, in a box, on a shelf inside an East Baltimore warehouse four miles from the hospital. The 165,000-square-foot building had concrete floors, rolling doors, overhead lighting — unremarkable, except to a man named Burton Fuller.

Fuller, a 38-year-old father of three, had once planned on becoming a doctor. Instead, he went into hospital supply chains. It was the kind of job that didn’t earn many follow-up questions at dinner parties. But six months after Fuller was hired at Hopkins, the pandemic made him the person that everyone relied on and no one envied. It was up to him to keep 40,000 employees in six hospitals safe.

Even before covid-19, masks were key to that equation. There are surgical masks, which protect a patient from a nurse’s germs, and respirator masks, which protect a nurse from the patient. Humans have recognized the need for protective masks since at least A.D. 77, when Pliny the Elder wrote about wearing animal bladders as face coverings to make breathing easier in lead-filled mines.

The evolution of early masks brought leather beaks stuffed with straw and herbs to ward off the bubonic plague, and long beards that firefighters would wet and clamp between their teeth. Once the far more effective gas mask became standard for coal miners breathing in silica and soldiers facing chemical weapons, engineers at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, better known as 3M, started trying to make a protective respirator that wasn’t so bulky. They realized in the 1960s that the technology used to make pre-made gift bows could also make a mask that was a lightweight, molded cup. And so began the single-use respirator as it exists today.

Inside that cup, and more recently, inside the flat-fold versions, is the key component: fibers 1/50th the width of a human hair, blown together in an intricate web that creates an obstacle course for dangerous particles. An electrostatic charge works like a magnet to trap the floating menaces and attach them to the fibers. If an N95 is fitted properly — a metal nose piece folded snugly, no beard in the way — less than 5 percent of even the most difficult-to-catch particles will make it into the lungs.

At Hopkins, Fuller’s job was to get manufacturers to deliver N95s and other equipment directly to the warehouse, rather than through a distributor. In 2019, the shelves started to fill up, and on one of them was the N95 that would make its way to nurse Kelly Williams. The respirator had been made by 3M at a plant in Aycliffe, a town of 7,000 in northern England.

But this Hopkins stockpile was rare in the world of hospitals, where costs were cut by using medical supply companies to provide equipment when it was needed, rather than letting PPE pile up.

Hospital administrators knew that in cases of natural disaster, chemical warfare or what global health officials used to call “Disease X,” the federal government had its own warehouses in secret locations, filled with PPE.

Except that in 2009, while Fuller was in his first job out of college, the H1N1 flu epidemic depleted 85 million N95s from the national stockpile — and the supply was never replenished. In 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017, public health officials published alarming reports warning of a “massive gap” in what remained. Even more concerning, they said, the vast majority of N95s and the materials needed to manufacture them were now being made in Asia.

The Department of Health and Human Services did fund the invention of a “one-of-a-kind, high-speed machine” that could make 1.5 million N95s per day. But when the design was completed in 2018, the Trump administration did not purchase it.

This year, as the virus spread from Wuhan to Washington state, HHS turned down a January offer from a manufacturer who could make millions of N95s. The agency didn’t start ordering N95s from multiple companies until March 21. Paul Mango, deputy chief of staff for policy at HHS, would later call that timeline “friggin’ light speed … the fastest this has ever been done.”

By then, the United States had 8,000 reported coronavirus cases and 85 deaths, and health-care workers were panicking over PPE shortages.

Fuller’s orders began being canceled. As the Hopkins emergency department was being readied for covid-19 patients, and Williams was being told she would need to start wearing an N95, the hospital’s administration decided not to reveal how many N95s were in the warehouse.

“Only a half a dozen people know,” Fuller said. “Behavioral economics say that if we communicate a number someone perceives as high, they will use the supply more gratuitously. If we communicate a number they perceive as low, they may hoard to ensure there is enough.”

As the boxes of N95s were loaded into trucks headed for Hopkins hospitals, Fuller and a dozen staff members entered what he would come to call “the gauntlet.” Every hospital and health department in the country was competing for N95s and other PPE, a mess of bidding wars, price gouging and worthless knockoff masks. Fuller uncovered one scam when a company CEO, claiming to be based in Indianapolis, didn’t recognize the name of the city’s most famous steakhouse.

“For every mask shipment we have been able to bring in,” Fuller said, “there are 10 or 15 transactions we have had to terminate.”

He worked so much that his wife, home with their children, received flowers from Hopkins executives. He joked about the other crucial stockpile in his life, his wine collection.

Fuller was desperate to make the stockpiled N95s last as long as possible. He wanted every employee wearing one to also wear a face shield, but those, too, were impossible to find.

So at the end of March, the warehouse filled with folding tables spaced six feet apart. Volunteers were given foam strips, elastic straps and sheets of plastic to make homemade shields. At one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the country, they were trying to fix the problem for themselves, with scissors, staplers and hot glue guns.

‘Bracing yourself’

A face shield was clipped to Williams’s belt in the middle of May, when for only the fourth time during the pandemic, she unwrapped a new N95.

After nine weeks in and out of Covidland, she had come to trust in her disposable respirator. It hurt her nose, gave her acne and made breathing hard. But the power of its protection was starting to give her back the feeling of safety she’d lost in March when she and the dozens of colleagues who worked alongside her each shift watched the areas where they’d cared for gunshot victims and heart attack patients turn into isolation rooms. They were tested to make sure the N95s fit their faces and taught to use other respirators that looked like gas masks or blew clean air into a hood.

And then, they were slammed. The first covid patient to go on a ventilator at Hopkins was a 40-year-old who worked out every day. The ambulance bay became a testing center. Williams’s co-workers were crying in the break room. Her patients couldn’t breathe, and then tubes were going down their throats, and then it felt like she couldn’t breathe, like everything she knew about nursing would never be enough.

“Our lives changed overnight,” she said. “You’re bracing yourself for people to die.”

She started silently saying a prayer she knew, every morning, every few hours, then sometimes 20 times a day in Covidland.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, it began. She said it before her patient started violently shaking and flailing, seizing in his bed. She couldn’t run out the door to ask for help, because to leave the room without potentially taking the virus out, she had to sanitize her gloves, trash them, take her gown off, trash it, exit into an antechamber, take off her first layer of gloves, sanitize her hands and wipe down her face shield. So she ran to the window and banged on it, then ran back to her patient, trying to hold him down, her face inches from his.

Courage, to change the things I can, the prayer continued. Williams said it in the car that she drove to work and wouldn’t let any member of her family touch. Its speakers blared Lizzo-filled playlists she used to pump herself up for what she told her friends was an “awesome learning experience.” She had been a nurse for only two years. Her job in merchandising at Under Armour had brought her to Baltimore, where she met her husband, Sean, and his two children. They were the ones to make her realize that she wanted a job where she could actually see the impact of all those hours she worked. Now, every day might be the day she took the virus home to them.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage, to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Another day in Covidland, and Williams was wearing her new N95, pumping her palms into an unconscious man’s chest, not thinking of all the particles flying out of his airways. Another, and her face shield popped off and clattered to the floor. Another, and a young Latina mother told Williams she couldn’t self-quarantine because she could not afford to stay home from work.

Another, and Williams was watching the chest of a middle-aged man rise and fall by the force of a ventilator. Outside the walls of the hospital on this day in July, America seemed to have moved on from the conversation about the shortage of N95s. Instead, people were fighting over simple cloth masks.

Maybe this patient had worn one. Maybe he’d said he didn’t believe in them. Either way, it was her job to take care of him. Williams suctioned virus-filled fluid from his airways, and breathed in again.

‘Not profitable’

The radio advertisements could be heard across South Dakota, playing inside cars passing billboards plastered with the same message: 3M is hiring in Aberdeen. In a state that hosted 460,000 people at an August motorcycle rally and requires no one to wear a mask sits the largest respirator plant in the United States.

Its N95 manufacturing lines have been running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week since Jan. 21, the same day public health officials announced the arrival of the coronavirus in Washington state.

Plant manager Andy Rehder hired 200 new employees this year and was still looking for more this summer so he could staff another N95 line being built. Rehder, whose wife wears an N95 as a hospital social worker, had a Bloomberg Magazine article from March displayed in his office. The headline asked, “How do you make more masks yesterday?”

The question still hangs over the plant, and the entire country, nearly six months after that article was published.

Ask the Trump administration, and the N95 shortage is nearly solved. Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, whom Trump put in charge of securing PPE, said that by December, 160 million N95s will be made in the United States per month. By his calculations, that will be enough to handle a “peak surge” from hospitals, clinics, independent physicians, nursing homes, dentists and first responders. The Strategic National Stockpile has 60 million N95s on hand, and states are rebuilding their stockpiles.

“I’ve got production up to what we think is the limits of what we need,” Polowczyk said. “I believe now that hospital systems are making management decisions that might lead to an appearance that we still don’t have masks, which is the farthest from the truth.”

But ask the people inside hospitals, and the shortage is far from over. An August survey of 21,500 nurses showed 68 percent of them are required to reuse respirators, many for more than the five times recommended by the CDC, and some even more than Kelly Williams. One Texas nurse reported she’s still wearing the same five N95s she was given in March.

Many health-care facilities that ordered KN95s, Chinese-made masks meant to have a similar filtering efficiency, gave up on them after realizing that the looser fit left workers in danger. The N95 shortage is more acute for primary care physicians, home health aides and hospice workers. But even for many hospital systems, the situation remains “fragile and challenging,” the American Hospital Association said this month.

“Maddening, frustrating, mind-blowing, aggravating, that’s the polite language for it,” said American Medical Association President Susan Bailey, who still hears from doctors who do not have respirators. “There has been such an outpouring for support for ‘health-care heroes.’ Everybody knows now how important it is for our front-line health-care workers to be able to work in a safe environment. … And yet, that desire doesn’t seem to be turning into a reality.”

The AMA, AHA, American Nurses Association and the AFL-CIO all point to the same solution: broader use of the Defense Production Act, which gives the president power over funding for the production and distribution of critical supplies during crises.

In August, Trump stood before a group of socially distanced reporters, praising himself for using the DPA “more comprehensively than any president in history.”

“There was a time,” he said, “when the media would say, ‘Why aren’t you using it? Why aren’t you using it?’ Well, we have used it a lot, where necessary. Only where necessary.”

That’s not what it looks like to the man who used to run Trump’s DPA program within the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Larry Hall, who retired last year, said the authority has been executed in an “ad hoc, haphazard fashion.”

Along with ordering 3M to import 166.5 million masks from China, the administration has used the DPA to invest $296.9 million in bolstering the N95 and filter-making supply chains. The Department of Defense, which oversees that funding, spends more per year on instruments, uniforms and travel for military bands.

“By not having a national strategy,” Hall said, “we have fewer masks.”

Ask the PPE industry and the refrain is that without long-term guarantees that the government will keep buying respirators, N95 manufacturers are wary of investing too much, and other companies that could start making respirators or the filters for them are hesitant to do so.

Peter Tsai, the scientist who invented a method to charge the fibers inside the respirator filter, knows why: “It is not profitable to make respirators in the United States,” he said. It can take six months just to create one manufacturing line that makes the N95′s filter.

But there is a workaround, Tsai said. Companies that already make similar filters — for vehicle emissions, air pollution and water systems — can modify their equipment to make N95 filters.

While Tsai, 68, has been fielding hundreds of calls from hospitals and researchers trying to sanitize N95s with heat and ultraviolet light, he has been working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to woo the 15 to 20 American companies that have the potential to produce respirator filters more quickly.

The government has funded just three of these companies through the DPA.

Others have gradually joined in on their own. But then those filters have to be made into respirators, and those respirators have to be approved by NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The entire process has moved at a glacial pace in comparison with the flurry of activity that rid the country of its ventilator shortage. Ventec, a company known for its efficient, toaster-size ventilators, handed its plans over to General Motors so that the auto company, under the DPA, could mass produce a product that was known to work. Other ventilator companies followed, handing over their trade secrets to Ford, Foxconn and other major manufacturers.

But when GM started making N95s, engineers with expertise in car interiors and air bags were charged with figuring out the process from scratch, the company said. Although they received advice from major mask makers, there were no groundbreaking corporate partnerships this time. The first N95s GM made were rejected by NIOSH. The second design didn’t correctly fit most people.

Other potential manufacturers went through the same challenges as GM, failing tests and making flat-fold N95s that experts worry do not offer a tight enough seal.

“If there was some kind of intellectual sharing, they wouldn’t be doing that,” said Christopher Coffey, who was the associate director for science in the NIOSH approvals program before retiring in January.

The DPA does have a provision that would allow manufacturers to work together without being subject to antitrust laws. But it has yet to be used for N95s.

Instead, established U.S. makers of N95s, whose products have been successfully protecting miners, construction workers and health-care professionals for decades, have continued to protect their processes as intellectual property.

Though 3M helped Ford make the far more expensive powered respirators, which blow clean air into a hood, the company has not entered into any major partnerships with outside manufacturers to make N95s. Asked why, 3M declined to explain, instead pointing to its other pandemic partnerships.

Ford gained its own approval to manufacture disposable respirators but has made just 16,000 of them while focusing instead on face shields and surgical masks. Other major U.S. manufacturers of N95s, including Honeywell and Moldex, have kept their manufacturing in-house, too.

“Folks aren’t likely to share that information outside of their own company,” said Jeff Peterson, who now oversees NIOSH approvals. NIOSH employees may know how 3M makes its respirators and the filters inside them. But by contract, they can’t tell other manufacturers how to do the same.

Meanwhile, 3M continues to dominate the American N95 market. While other parts of its business, such as office supplies and industrial adhesives, have struggled during the pandemic, 3M has invested $100 million to expand domestic production of respirators from 22 million to 50 million per month. Once the new production line is up and running in South Dakota in October, that number is expected to reach 95 million per month in the United States.

It still won’t be enough.

“Even though we are making more respirators than ever before and have dramatically increased production,” 3M spokeswoman Jennifer Ehrlich said, “the demand is more than we, and the entire industry, can supply for the foreseeable future.”

‘I just don’t get it’

Her N95 was already on, but Williams’s hands were slipping as she tried to force on a pair of gloves. She could hear the alarms going off. One of her patients was crashing, and she had to get into the room.

She should be able to just go, her runner’s legs carrying her to the bedside. But in Covidland, there were two closed doors standing in her way. She had started wearing her N95 all day so she could be ready for this moment. She pulled on her gown and another set of gloves and her face shield, reached for the door — and realized the patient inside was her 13-year-old stepson Kellen.

She jolted awake. She was in her bed. Her husband was asleep beside her. She slid out from her sheets and went downstairs to check on her stepchildren. Kellen and 19-year-old Alle were sleeping, too.

The nurse inhaled. She could still hear the alarms.

This is what it meant now, to be a health-care worker: across the country, nurses and doctors were reporting increased sleeplessness, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

Williams reminded herself that she’d always had an N95, and the heavier, more protective respirators she sometimes wore instead.

But she knew, too, that covid-19 had taken the lives of more than 1,000 health-care workers, including a New Jersey primary care doctor who, determined to keep his practice open, doubled up on surgical masks when his N95 orders didn’t come. And a California nurse who rushed into a covid patient’s room to perform chest compressions. She saved his life, then doused her hair in hand sanitizer. She hadn’t been given an N95 at the beginning of her shift.

And then there was the news that shook every health-care worker Williams knew: Less than two miles from Hopkins, the head of the ICU at Mercy Hospital died after contracting the virus in July.

Joseph Costa was one of the people who’d guided the hospital through its PPE shortage early in the pandemic. His husband, David Hart, remembered him coming home and saying, “This is my mask for the week.” Neighbors pushed N95s through their mailbox slot.

“This is the United States of America, and we can’t seem to get factories built to deliver this stuff? I just don’t get it,” Hart said.

He will never know exactly how his husband, who insisted on caring for covid patients alongside his staff, became infected. Costa died in the ICU, the gloved hands of his colleagues on him as he went. Minutes later, they returned to caring for other patients.

At Mercy, at Hopkins, at every hospital that had found a way to get N95s, health-care workers wore their PPE to try to save the lives of people who contracted the virus because they had none.

Williams and her colleagues didn’t need to see the statistics to know that the pandemic was disproportionately affecting Black and Brown people, especially those deemed essential workers. They saw it in their patients and heard it from their families and friends.

Williams worked side by side with Shanika Young, a nurse whose brother seemed to have every known covid-19 symptom before he started to recover.

Afraid of infecting anyone in her community, Young went weeks without seeing her parents and newborn niece. She adopted a hound-mix puppy to have a friend when she couldn’t see her own. In the weeks that followed the killing of George Floyd, she agonized over her decision to stay away from the protests. She knew there wouldn’t be N95s there.

On a sweltering August morning, she left her dog in her apartment and packed her respirator in her car. She, too, re-wore her mask, but usually for four or five 12-hours shifts.

Now Young was taking it across Baltimore, not toward the hospital, but to a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood with one of the worst infection rates in the city.

During the pandemic, Baltimore has seen outbreaks in its homeless shelters, its trash-collecting facility and its jail. Now every place Young drove by fell on one side or the other of a new dividing line in America: those who have PPE and those who don’t. Bodegas, restaurants, nail salons and funeral homes. Downtown, a nonprofit’s dental clinic remained shuttered. She passed a mental health counseling center where sessions were still conducted only by video, and a physical therapist who wore KN95s to see clients. She parked near a school that, without N95s, had no way of ensuring its teachers were protected. It serves primarily Latino children, all of whom would be forced to learn online.

In the parking lot of the church, a booth that used to sell $1 snow cones had been transformed into a coronavirus testing center run by a team of Hopkins doctors and nurses.

On her day off, Young volunteered to work with them, spending hours sweating in her scrubs, sending swabs deep into nose after nose. She wore a surgical mask on top of her N95.

“I don’t think there’s any science that says this is actually safer,” she said. “But it’s just a mental thing.”

The line of people sweating on the asphalt was so long, Young couldn’t see the people at the end: a man in painter’s clothes, a mother pushing a stroller and a woman who, like Young, was wearing scrubs. Stitched onto the chest was the name of a retirement home.

‘Hazard’

The coughing patient was starting to fall asleep when Williams left her in the covid unit. Her shift had been over for more than 30 minutes. She checked in to make sure there was no one else who needed her help and headed for the locker room. She washed her hands twice. She used alcohol wipes to sanitize her phone, glasses, ID badges and pens.

She took off her N95, and she inhaled.

For the first time in two months, she decided that this respirator was done. Its straps were starting to feel too stretched. The shape of it looked just a little too warped.

Instead of hanging the N95 from a hook in her locker to air dry, she stuffed it in a bag marked “hazard.”

A new mask, still in its plastic packaging, was waiting for her next shift. She would wear it as long as possible, especially after learning that the Hopkins stockpile had run out of the British-made mask she wore and couldn’t get any more. She needed to change to a different type of N95, one that felt unfamiliar once again. She told herself that she was grateful just to have it. She told herself that it would protect her just the same.

 

 

 

 

 

First Sign of Civilization

11 Margaret Mead Quotes that Show Change Starts with You

Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.
But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.”
“We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.”
– Ira Byock.

What it’s like to be a nurse after 6 months of COVID-19 response

https://www.healthcaredive.com/trendline/labor/28/?utm_source=HD&utm_medium=Library&utm_campaign=Vituity&utm_term=Healthcare%20Dive#story-2

Those on the front lines of the fight against the novel coronavirus worry about keeping themselves, their families and their patients safe.

This story is part of a series examining the state of healthcare six months into the public health emergency declared for COVID-19.

There’s no end in sight for the country as it grapples with another surge of COVID-19 cases.

That’s especially true for nurses seeking the reprieve of their hospitals returning to normal operations sometime this year. Many in the South and West are now treating ICUs full of COVID-19 patients they hoped would never arrive in their states, largely spared from spring’s first wave.

And like many other essential workers, those in healthcare are falling ill and dying from COVID-19. The total number of nurses stricken by the virus is still unclear, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 106,180 cases and 552 deaths among healthcare workers. That’s almost certainly an undercount.

National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, told Healthcare Dive it has counted 165 nurse deaths from COVID-19 and an additional 1,060 healthcare worker deaths.

Safety concerns have ignited union activity among healthcare workers during the pandemic, and also given them an opportunity to punctuate labor issues that aren’t new, like nurse-patient ratios, adequate pay and racial equality.

At the same time, the hospitals they work for are facing some of their worst years yet financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes that analysts predict will continue through the year. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.

Healthcare Dive had in-depth conversations with three nurses to get a clearer picture of how they’re faring amid the once-in-a-century pandemic. Here’s what they said.

 

Elizabeth Lalasz, registered nurse, John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago

Elizabeth Lalasz has worked at John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago for the past 10 years. Her hospital is a safety net facility, catering to those who are “Black, Latinx, the homeless, inmates,” Lalasz told Healthcare Dive. “People who don’t actually receive the kind of healthcare they should in this country.”

Data from the CDC show racial and ethnic minority groups are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age, due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities.

CDC data reveal that Black people are five times more likely to contract the virus than white people.

This spring Lalasz treated inmates from the Cook County Jail, an epicenter in the city and also the country. “That population gradually decreased, and then we just had COVID patients, many of them Latinx families,” she said.

Permission granted by Elizabeth Lalasz

Once Chicago’s curve began to flatten and the hospital could take non-COVID patients, those coming in for treatment were desperately sick. They’d been delaying care for non-COVID conditions, worried a trip to the hospital could risk infection.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in May found that 48% of Americans said they or a family member had skipped or delayed medical care because of the pandemic. And 11% said the person’s condition worsened as a result of the delayed care.

When patients do come into Lalasz’s hospital, many have “chest pain, then they also have diabetes, asthma, hypertension and obesity, it just adds up,” she said.

“So now we’re also treating people who’ve been delaying care. But after the recent southern state surges, the hospital census started going down again,” she said.

Amy Arlund, registered nurse, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fresno, California:

Amy Arlund works the night shift at Kaiser Fresno as an ICU nurse, which she’s done for the past two decades.

She’s also on the hospital’s infection control committee, where for years she’s fought to control the spread of clostridium difficile colitis, or C. diff., in her facility. The highly infectious disease can live on surfaces outside the body for months or sometimes years.

The measures Arlund developed to control C. diff served as her litmus test, as “the top, most stringent protocols we could adhere to,” when coronavirus patients arrived at her hospital, she told Healthcare Dive.

But when COVID-19 cases surged in northern states this spring, “it’s like all those really strict isolation protocols that prior to COVID showing up would be disciplinable offenses were gone,” Arlund said.

Widespread personal protective equipment shortages at the start of the pandemic led the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to change their longstanding guidance on when to use N95 respirator masks, which have long been the industry standard when dealing with novel infectious diseases.

The CDC also issued guidance for N95 respirator reuse, an entirely new concept to nurses like Arlund who say those changes go against everything they learned in school.

“I think the biggest change is we always relied on science, and we have always relied heavily on infection control protocols to guide our practice,” Arlund said. “Now infection control is out of control, we can no longer rely on the information and resources we always have.”

Permission granted by Amy Arlund

The CDC says experts are still learning how the coronavirus spreads, though person-to-person transmission is most common, while the World Health Organization recently acknowledged that it wouldn’t rule out airborne transmission of the virus.

In Arlund’s ICU, she’s taken care of dozens of COVID positive patients and patients ruled out for coronavirus, she said. After a first wave in the beginning of April, cases dropped, but are now rising again.

Other changing guidance weighing heavily on nurses is how to effectively treat coronavirus patients.

“Are we doing remdesivir this week or are we going back to the hydroxychloroquine, or giving them convalescent plasma?”Arlund said. “Next week I’m going to be giving them some kind of lavender enema, who knows.”

 

Erik Andrews, registered nurse, Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California:

Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in California, has treated coronavirus patients since the pandemic started earlier this year. He likens ventilating them to diffusing a bomb.

“These types of procedures generate a lot of aerosols, you have to do everything in perfectly stepwise fashion, otherwise you’re going to endanger yourself and endanger your colleagues,” Andrews, who’s been at Riverside for the past 13 years, told Healthcare Dive.

He and about 600 other nurses at the hospital went on strike for 10 days this summer after a staffing agreement between the hospital and its owner, HCA Healthcare, and SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing RCH nurses, ended without a renewal.

The nurses said it would lead to too few nurses treating too many patients during a pandemic. Insufficient PPE and recycling of single-use PPE were also putting nurses and patients at risk, the union said, and another reason for the strike.

But rapidly changing guidance around PPE use and generally inconsistent information from public officials are now making the nurses at his hospital feel apathetic.

“Unfortunately I feel like in the past few weeks it’s gotten to the point where you have to remind people about putting on their respirator instead of face mask, so people haven’t gotten lax, but definitely kind of become desensitized compared to when we first started,” Andrews said.

Permission granted by Erik Andrews

With two children at home, Andrews slept in a trailer in his driveway for 12 weeks when he first started treating coronavirus patients. The trailer is still there, just in case, but after testing negative twice he felt he couldn’t spend any more time away from his family.

He still worries though, especially about his coworkers’ families. Some coworkers he’s known for over a decade, including one staff member who died from COVID-19 related complications.

“It’s people you know and you know that their families worry about them every day,” he said. “So to know that they’ve had to deal with that loss is pretty horrifying, and to know that could happen to my family too.”

 

 

 

 

Pandemic spurs national union activity among hospital workers

https://www.healthcaredive.com/trendline/labor/28/?utm_source=HD&utm_medium=Library&utm_campaign=Vituity&utm_term=Healthcare%20Dive#story-1

When COVID-19 cases swelled in New York and other northern states this spring, Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in southern California, thought his hospital should have enough time to prepare for the worst.

Instead, he said his hospital faced staffing cuts and a lack of adequate personal protective equipment that led around 600 of its nurses to strike for 10 days starting in late June, just before negotiating a new contract with the hospital and its owner, Nashville-based HCA Healthcare.

“To feel like you were just put out there on the front lines with as minimal support necessary was incredibly disheartening,” Andrews said. Two employees at RCH have died from COVID-19, according to SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing them.

A spokesperson for HCA told Healthcare Dive the “strike has very little to do with the best interest of their members and everything to do with contract negotiations.”

Across the country, the pandemic is exacerbating labor tensions with nurses and other healthcare workers, leading to a string of disputes around what health systems are doing to keep front-line staff safe. The workers’ main concerns are adequate staffing and PPE. Ongoing or upcoming contract negotiations could boost their leverage.

But many of the systems that employ these workers are themselves stressed in a number of ways, above all financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.

Striking a balance between doing union action at hospitals and continuing care for patients could be an ongoing challenge, Patricia Campos-Medina, co-director of New York State AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute.

“The nurses association has been very active since the beginning of the crisis, demanding PPE and doing internal activities in their hospitals demanding proper procedures,” Campos-Medina said. “They are front-line workers, so they have to be thoughtful in how they continue to provide care but also protect themselves and their patients.”

At Prime Healthcare’s Encino Hospital Medical Center, just outside Los Angeles, medical staff voted to unionize July 5, a week after the hospital laid off about half of its staff, including its entire clinical lab team, according to SEIU Local 121RN, which now represents those workers.

One of the first things the newly formed union will fight is “the unjust layoffs of their colleagues,” it said in a statement.

A Prime Healthcare spokesperson told Healthcare Dive 25 positions were cut. “These Encino positions were not part of front-line care and involved departments such as HR, food services, and lab services,” the system said.

Hospital service workers elsewhere who already have bargaining rights are also bringing attention to what they deem as staffing and safety issues.

In Chicago, workers at Loretto Hospital voted to authorize a strike Thursday. Those workers include patient care technicians, emergency room technicians, mental health staff and dietary and housekeeping staff, according to SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the union that represents them. They’ve been bargaining with hospital management for a new contract since December and plan to go on strike July 20.

Loretto Hospital is a safety-net facility, catering primarily to “Black and Brown West Side communities plagued with disproportionate numbers of COVID illnesses and deaths in recent months,” the union said.

The “Strike For Black Lives” is in response to “management’s failure to bargain in good faith on critical issues impacting the safety and well-being of both workers and patients — including poverty level wages and short staffing,” according to the union.

A Loretto spokesperson told Healthcare Dive the system is hopeful that continuing negotiations will bring an agreement, though it’s “planning as if a strike is eminent and considering the best options to continue to provide healthcare services to our community.”

Meanwhile in Joliet, Illinois, more than 700 nurses at Amita St. Joseph Medical Center went on strike July 4.

The Illinois Nurses Association which represents Amita nurses, cited ongoing concerns about staff and patient safety during the pandemic, namely adequate PPE, nurse-to-patient ratios and sick pay, they want addressed in the next contract. They are currently bargaining for a new one, and said negotiations stalled. The duration of the strike is still unclear.

However, a hospital spokesperson told Healthcare Dive, “Negotiations have been ongoing with proposals and counter proposals exchanged.”

The hospital’s most recent proposal “was not accepted, but negotiations will continue,” the system said.

INA is also upset with Amita’s recruitment of out-of-state nurses to replace striking ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It sent a letter to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, asserting the hospital used “emergency permits that are intended only for responding to the pandemic for purposes of aiding the hospital in a labor dispute.”

 

 

 

 

U.S. advisory group lays out detailed recommendations on how to prioritize Covid-19 vaccine

U.S. advisory group lays out detailed recommendations on how to prioritize Covid-19 vaccine

A new report that aims to prioritize groups to receive Covid-19 vaccine lays out detailed recommendations on who should be at the front of the line, starting with health care workers in high-risk settings, followed by adults of any age who have medical conditions that put them at significantly higher risk of having severe disease.

Also toward the front of the line would be older adults living in long-term care homes or other crowded settings.

The draft report, which runs 114 pages, was released Tuesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which was tasked with the work by Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A virtual public meeting on the recommendations will be held Wednesday afternoon, and the committee’s final report will be submitted later in September.

When Covid-19 vaccines are approved for use, initial supplies will be tight — potentially in the tens of millions of doses. Most of the vaccines under development will require two doses per person: a priming dose followed by a booster either three or four weeks later.

The report suggests that a second phase of vaccinations should involve critical risk workers — people in industries essential to the functioning of society — as well as teachers and school staff; people of all ages with an underlying health problem that increases the risk of severe Covid-19; all older adults not vaccinated in the first phase; people in homeless shelters and group homes, and prisons; and staff working in these facilities.

Young adults, children, and workers in essential industries not vaccinated previously would make up the third priority group. Remaining Americans who were not vaccinated in the first three groups would be offered vaccine during a fourth and final phase.

The report is meant to serve as a guide for more detailed prioritization plans on the order in which Americans will be offered vaccine. That more granular work is already being conducted by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an expert panel that crafts vaccination guidance for the CDC, and by state, local, and tribal health authorities, who must identify the actual people in their regions who fall into the priority groups.

There has been discussion of prioritizing people of color, who have been disproportionately badly hit in this pandemic. But the report does not recommend that Black, Hispanic, Latinx people, or American Indians or Alaskan natives be treated as a distinct priority group.

The committee suggested that there does not appear to be a biological reason for why these communities are more seriously affected by the pandemic. Instead, it argues, the high rates of infections and deaths in these communities are due to systemic racism that leads to higher levels of poor health and socioeconomic factors such as working in jobs that cannot be done from home or living in crowded settings.

The report therefore prioritized other factors — people with underlying medical problems, people living in crowded environments, for instance — rather than creating priority categories for racial or ethnic groups.

The ACIP’s recommendations will go to the CDC. It remains unclear, however, whether the CDC, Operation Warp Speed — the task force set up to fast-track development of Covid-19 vaccines, drugs and diagnostics — or the White House will make the final determinations on who will be vaccinated first.

The task of determining who should be at the front of the vaccines line is not an easy one, and must be made without key pieces of information. It’s not yet known how many vaccines will prove to be successful, when they will be approved for use and in what quantities. Critically, some vaccines may prove to be more effective in key groups — the elderly, for instance — than others. Knowing that in advance could influence the recommendations, but people working on the priority groups cannot wait for that information to become available.

Initial discussions suggest large numbers of Americans would qualify as members of priority groups, a reality that will likely require additional tough decisions to be made.

CDC estimates that there are between 17 million and 20 million health care workers in the country, and roughly 100 million people with medical conditions that put them at increased risk of severe illness if they contract Covid-19. There are roughly 53 million Americans aged 65 and older and 100 million people in jobs designated as essential services. There is some overlap among these groups — health workers, for instance, are also essential workers.

report released last month by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recommended dividing priority groups into two tiers, with health workers and others essential to the Covid-19 response in the first tier and other health workers in the second.

In that report, people at greatest risk and their caregivers, and workers most essential to maintaining core societal functions would also be designated to be in the first tier.

 

 

 

 

Fewer than 10% of primary care practices have stabilized operations amid COVID-19 pandemic

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/practices/fewer-than-10-primary-care-practices-have-stabilized-operations-amid-covid-19-pandemic?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWTJGaE1qTTRaalpsT1dGayIsInQiOiJTNWFxb3VcL3J3ZmE4ZWV0bFwvOGJCYUc0Ukd3TWp4WlM1SzBzT01aeVJIUGlsSWkwNTlVajJxekJqUUsrcWoxZ0IwTUNqVlhTWVJLQmZkSk1XNGtKVEdCOWg3NmRWeFdldFpsSmlONnFvTTFGQ2l1bzQ4S3ZqNWpoaUx2d1pHaSs1In0%3D

Fewer than 10% of primary care practices have stabilized ...

Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer than 10% of U.S. primary care practices have been able to stabilize operations.

Nearly 9 in 10 primary care practices continue to face significant difficulties with COVID-19, including obtaining medical supplies, meeting the increasing health needs of their patients, and finding sufficient resources to remain operational, according to a recent survey of close to 600 primary care clinicians in 46 states.

Only 13% of primary care clinicians say they are adapting to a “new normal” in the protracted pandemic, the survey found.

More than four months into the pandemic and at a time when 39 states are experiencing an increase of COVID-19 cases, fewer than 4 in 10 clinicians feel confident and safe with their access to personal protective equipment, according to the survey from the Larry A. Green Center in partnership with the Primary Care Collaborative, which was conducted July 10 to July 13.

Among the primary care clinicians surveyed, 11% report that staff in their practice have quit in the last four weeks over safety concerns.

A primary care provider in Ohio said this: “The ‘I can do 4-6 weeks of this’ transition to ‘this feels like a new/permanent normal’ is crushing and demoralizing. Ways to build morale when everyone is at a computer workstation away from other staff (and patients) feels impossible.”

“In the first few months of the pandemic, the country pulled together to stop the spread of the virus, and it seemed like we were making progress. Primary care clinicians and practices were working hard, against tremendous challenges,” said Rebecca Etz, Ph.D., co-director of The Larry A. Green Center in a statement.

“But now the country is backsliding, and it’s clear that primary care doesn’t have enough strength to deal with the rising number of cases. If primary care were a COVID-19 patient, it would be flat on its back,” Etz said.

The survey conducted by the Larry A. Green Center is part of an ongoing series looking at the attitudes of primary care clinicians and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic and the abilities of practices to meet patients’ needs.

Close to 40% of primary care providers report they are maxed out with mental exhaustion and 18% say they spend each week wondering if their practice or job will still be there next week.

In addition to feeling stressed, clinicians and their practices are also experiencing upheaval. The survey found that 22% of clinicians report skipped or deferred salaries, and 78% report preventive and chronic care is being deferred or delayed by patients.

Primary care clinicians report that 42% of in-person volume is down but overall contact with patients is high, while 39% report not being able to bill for the majority of work delivered, the survey found.

“Given the rapidly rising infection rates and persistent lack of PPE, more than a third of primary care clinicians are reporting feeling unsafe at the office, and 20% are cutting back on face-to-face visits while doing more remote outreach,” said Ann Greiner, president and CEO of the Primary Care Collaborative in a statement.

Greiner said this is a clear signal that payers must advance or retain parity for telehealth and telephonic calls.

“It also is a clarion call to move to a new payment system that doesn’t rely on face-to-face visits and that is prospective so practices can better manage patient care,” she said.

Providers say they need more support from private insurers, particularly when it comes to reimbursing for telehealth and telephone visits. 

According to the survey, a primary care doctor in Illinois said, “Recently told we would not be able to conduct telephone visits due to lack of reimbursement. I work in a low-income Medicare population which has low health literacy and no technology literacy. We were 80% telephone and 20% Zoom and in-office. This further exemplifies the extreme health care disparities in the U.S.”

 

 

 

What it’s like to be a nurse after 6 months of COVID-19 response

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/what-its-like-to-be-a-nurse-6-months-coronavirus/581709/

Those on the front lines of the fight against the novel coronavirus worry about keeping themselves, their families and their patients safe.

That’s especially true for nurses seeking the reprieve of their hospitals returning to normal operations sometime this year. Many in the South and West are now treating ICUs full of COVID-19 patients they hoped would never arrive in their states, largely spared from spring’s first wave.

And like many other essential workers, those in healthcare are falling ill and dying from COVID-19. The total number of nurses stricken by the virus is still unclear, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 106,180 cases and 552 deaths among healthcare workers. That’s almost certainly an undercount.

National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, told Healthcare Dive it has counted 165 nurse deaths from COVID-19 and an additional 1,060 healthcare worker deaths.

Safety concerns have ignited union activity among healthcare workers during the pandemic, and also given them an opportunity to punctuate labor issues that aren’t new, like nurse-patient ratios, adequate pay and racial equality.

At the same time, the hospitals they work for are facing some of their worst years yet financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes that analysts predict will continue through the year. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.

Healthcare Dive had in-depth conversations with three nurses to get a clearer picture of how they’re faring amid the once-in-a-century pandemic. Here’s what they said.

Elizabeth Lalasz, registered nurse, John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago

Elizabeth Lalasz has worked at John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago for the past 10 years. Her hospital is a safety net facility, catering to those who are “Black, Latinx, the homeless, inmates,” Lalasz told Healthcare Dive. “People who don’t actually receive the kind of healthcare they should in this country.”

Data from the CDC show racial and ethnic minority groups are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age, due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities.

CDC data reveal that Black people are five times more likely to contract the virus than white people.

This spring Lalasz treated inmates from the Cook County Jail, an epicenter in the city and also the country. “That population gradually decreased, and then we just had COVID patients, many of them Latinx families,” she said.

Once Chicago’s curve began to flatten and the hospital could take non-COVID patients, those coming in for treatment were desperately sick. They’d been delaying care for non-COVID conditions, worried a trip to the hospital could risk infection.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in May found that 48% of Americans said they or a family member had skipped or delayed medical care because of the pandemic. And 11% said the person’s condition worsened as a result of the delayed care.

When patients do come into Lalasz’s hospital, many have “chest pain, then they also have diabetes, asthma, hypertension and obesity, it just adds up,” she said.

“So now we’re also treating people who’ve been delaying care. But after the recent southern state surges, the hospital census started going down again,” she said.

Amy Arlund, registered nurse, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fresno, California:

Amy Arlund works the night shift at Kaiser Fresno as an ICU nurse, which she’s done for the past two decades.

She’s also on the hospital’s infection control committee, where for years she’s fought to control the spread of clostridium difficile colitis, or C. diff., in her facility. The highly infectious disease can live on surfaces outside the body for months or sometimes years.

The measures Arlund developed to control C. diff served as her litmus test, as “the top, most stringent protocols we could adhere to,” when coronavirus patients arrived at her hospital, she told Healthcare Dive.

But when COVID-19 cases surged in northern states this spring, “it’s like all those really strict isolation protocols that prior to COVID showing up would be disciplinable offenses were gone,” Arlund said.

Widespread personal protective equipment shortages at the start of the pandemic led the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to change their longstanding guidance on when to use N95 respirator masks, which have long been the industry standard when dealing with novel infectious diseases.

The CDC also issued guidance for N95 respirator reuse, an entirely new concept to nurses like Arlund who say those changes go against everything they learned in school.

“I think the biggest change is we always relied on science, and we have always relied heavily on infection control protocols to guide our practice,” Arlund said. “Now infection control is out of control, we can no longer rely on the information and resources we always have.”

The CDC says experts are still learning how the coronavirus spreads, though person-to-person transmission is most common, while the World Health Organization recently acknowledged that it wouldn’t rule out airborne transmission of the virus.

In Arlund’s ICU, she’s taken care of dozens of COVID positive patients and patients ruled out for coronavirus, she said. After a first wave in the beginning of April, cases dropped, but are now rising again.

Other changing guidance weighing heavily on nurses is how to effectively treat coronavirus patients.

“Are we doing remdesivir this week or are we going back to the hydroxychloroquine, or giving them convalescent plasma?”Arlund said. “Next week I’m going to be giving them some kind of lavender enema, who knows.”

Erik Andrews, registered nurse, Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California:

Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in California, has treated coronavirus patients since the pandemic started earlier this year. He likens ventilating them to diffusing a bomb.

“These types of procedures generate a lot of aerosols, you have to do everything in perfectly stepwise fashion, otherwise you’re going to endanger yourself and endanger your colleagues,” Andrews, who’s been at Riverside for the past 13 years, told Healthcare Dive.

He and about 600 other nurses at the hospital went on strike for 10 days this summer after a staffing agreement between the hospital and its owner, HCA Healthcare, and SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing RCH nurses, ended without a renewal.

The nurses said it would lead to too few nurses treating too many patients during a pandemic. Insufficient PPE and recycling of single-use PPE were also putting nurses and patients at risk, the union said, and another reason for the strike.

But rapidly changing guidance around PPE use and generally inconsistent information from public officials are now making the nurses at his hospital feel apathetic.

“Unfortunately I feel like in the past few weeks it’s gotten to the point where you have to remind people about putting on their respirator instead of face mask, so people haven’t gotten lax, but definitely kind of become desensitized compared to when we first started,” Andrews said.

With two children at home, Andrews slept in a trailer in his driveway for 12 weeks when he first started treating coronavirus patients. The trailer is still there, just in case, but after testing negative twice he felt he couldn’t spend any more time away from his family.

He still worries though, especially about his coworkers’ families. Some coworkers he’s known for over a decade, including one staff member who died from COVID-19 related complications.

“It’s people you know and you know that their families worry about them every day,” he said. “So to know that they’ve had to deal with that loss is pretty horrifying, and to know that could happen to my family too.”

 

 

 

Houston, Miami, other cities face mounting health care worker shortages as infections climb

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/houston-miami-and-other-cities-face-mounting-health-care-worker-shortages-as-infections-climb/2020/07/25/45fd720c-ccf8-11ea-b0e3-d55bda07d66a_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR14P9OGxTOPU8pMgjsVof7YlOAPv-vfxq2MBm9RlpYFVVa3qvpmvyIjFyA

Shortages of health care workers are worsening in Houston, Miami, Baton Rouge and other cities battling sustained covid-19 outbreaks, exhausting staffers and straining hospitals’ ability to cope with spiking cases.

That need is especially dire for front-line nurses, respiratory therapists and others who play hands-on, bedside roles where one nurse is often required for each critically ill patient.

While many hospitals have devised ways to stretch material resources — converting surgery wards into specialized covid units and recycling masks and gowns — it is far more difficult to stretch the human workers needed to make the system function.

“At the end of the day, the capacity for critical care is a balance between the space, staff and stuff. And if you have a bottleneck in one, you can’t take additional patients,” said Mahshid Abir, a senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and director of the Acute Care Research Unit (ACRU) at the University of Michigan. “You have to have all three … You can’t have a ventilator, but not a respiratory therapist.”

“What this is going to do is it’s going to cost lives, not just for covid patients, but for everyone else in the hospital,” she warned.

The increasingly fraught situation reflects packed hospitals across large swaths of the country: More than 8,800 covid patients are hospitalized in Texas; Florida has more than 9,400; and at least 13 other states also have thousands of hospitalizations, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

Facilities in several states, including Texas, South Carolina and Indiana, have in recent weeks reported shortages of such workers, according to federal planning documents viewed by The Post, pitting states and hospitals against one another to recruit staff.

On Thursday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said he asked the federal government to send in 700 health-care workers to assist besieged hospitals.

“Even if for some strange reason … you don’t care about covid-19, you should care about that hospital capacity when you have an automobile accident or when you have your heart attack or your stroke, or your mother or grandmother has that stroke,” Edwards said at a news conference.

In Florida, 39 hospitals have requested help from the state for respiratory therapists, nurses and nursing assistants. In South Carolina, the National Guard is sending 40 medical professionals to five hospitals in response to rising cases.

Many medical facilities anticipate their staffing problems will deteriorate, according to the planning documents: Texas is hardest hit, with South Carolina close behind. Needs range from pharmacists to physicians.

Hot spots stretch across the country, from Miami and Atlanta to Southern California and the Rio Grande Valley, and the demands for help are as diffuse as the suffering.

“What we have right now are essentially three New Yorks with these three major states,” White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx said Friday during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.

But today’s diffuse transmission requires innovative thinking and a different response from months ago in New York, say experts. While some doctors have been able to share expertise online and nurses have teamed up to relieve pressures, the overall strains are growing.

“We missed the boat,” said Serena Bumpus, a leader of multiple Texas nursing organizations and regional director of nursing for the Austin Round Rock Region of Baylor Scott and White Health.

Bumpus blames a lack of coordination at national and state officials. “It feels like this free-for-all,” she said, “and each organization is just kind of left up to their own devices to try to figure this out.”

In a disaster, a hospital or local health system typically brings in help from neighboring communities. But that standard emergency protocol, which comes into play following a hurricane or tornado, “is predicated on the notion that you’ll have a concentrated area of impact,” said Christopher Nelson, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

That is how Texas has functioned in the past, said Jennifer Banda, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the Texas Hospital Association, recalling the influx of temporary help after Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston three years ago.

It is how the response took shape early in the outbreak, when health-care workers headed to hard-hit New York.

But the sustained and far-flung nature of the pandemic has made that approach unworkable. “The challenge right now,” Banda said, “is we are taxing the system all across the country.”

Theresa Q. Tran, an emergency medicine physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, began to feel the crunch in June. Only a few weeks before, she had texted a friend to say how disheartening it was to see crowds of people reveling outdoors without masks on Memorial Day weekend.

Her fears were borne out when she found herself making call after call after call from her ER, unable to admit a critically ill patient because her hospital had run out of ICU space, but unable to find a hospital able to take them.

Under normal circumstances, the transfer of such patients — “where you’re afraid to look away, or to blink, because they may just crash on you,” as Tran describes them — happens quickly to ensure the close monitoring the ICU affords.

Those critical patients begin to stall in the ER, stretching the abilities of the nurses and doctors attending to them. “A lot of people, they come in, and they need attention immediately,” Tran said, noting that emergency physicians are constantly racing against time. “Time is brain, or time is heart.”

By mid-July, an influx of “surge” staff brought relief, Tran said. But that was short-lived as the crisis jumped from one locality to the next, with the emergency procedures to bring in more staff never quite keeping up with the rising infections.

An ER physician in the Rio Grande Valley said all three of the major trauma hospitals in the area have long since run out of the ability to absorb new ICU patients.

“We’ve been full for weeks,” said the physician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation for speaking out about the conditions.

“The truth is, the majority of our work now in the emergency department is ICU work,” he said. “Some of our patients down here, we’re now holding them for days.” And each one of those critically ill patients needs a nurse to stay with them.

When ICU space has opened up — maybe two, three, four beds — it never feels like relief, he said, because in the time it takes to move those patients out, 20 new ones arrive.

Even with help his hospital has received — masks and gowns were procured, and the staff more than doubled in the past few weeks with relief nurses and other health-care workers from outside — it still is not enough.

The local nurses are exhausted. Some quit. Even the relief nurses who helped out in New York in the spring seem horrified by the scale of the disaster in South Texas, he said.

“If no one comes and helps us out and gives us the ammo we need to fight this thing, we are not going to win,” the doctor said.

One of the root causes of the problem in the United States is that emergency departments and ICUs are often operating at or near capacity, Abir and Nelson said, putting them dangerously close to shortages before a crisis even hits.

Texas, along with 32 other states, has joined a licensure compact, allowing nurses to practice across state borders, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit from other parts of the country.

Texas medical facilities can apply to the Department of State Health Services for staffers to fill a critical shortage, typically for a two-week period. But two weeks, which would allow time to respond to most disasters, hardly registers in a pandemic, so facilities have to ask for extensions or make new applications.

South Carolina last week issued an order that allows nursing graduates who have not yet completed their licensing exams to begin working under supervision. Prisma Health, the state’s biggest hospital system, said this week that the number of patients admitted to its hospitals has more than tripled in the past three weeks and is approaching 300 new patients a day.

“As the capacity increases, so does the need for additional staff,” Scott Sasser, the incident commander for Prisma Health’s covid-19 response said in a statement. Prisma has so far shifted nurses from one area to another, brought back furloughed nurses, hired more physicians and brought in temporary nurse hires, among other measures, Sasser said.

Bumpus has fielded calls from nurses all over the country — some as far afield as the United Kingdom — wanting to know how they can help. But Bumpus says she does not have an easy answer.

“I’ve had to kind of just do my own digging and use my connections,” she said. At first, she said, interested nurses were asked to register through the Texas Disaster Volunteer Registry; but then the system never seemed to be put to use.

Later she learned — “by happenstance … literally by social media” — that the state had contracted with private agencies to find nurses. So now she directs callers to those agencies.

Even rural parts of Texas that were spared initially are being ravaged by the virus, according to John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.

“Unless things start getting better in short order, we don’t have enough staff,” he acknowledged. As for filling critical staffing gaps by moving people around, “even the state admits that they can’t continue to do that,” Henderson said.

The situation has become so dire in some rural parts of the state that Judge Eloy Vera implored people to stay home on the Starr County Facebook page, warning, “Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die.”

Steven Gularte, CEO of Chambers Health in Anahuac, Tex., 45 miles from Houston, said he had to bring in 10 nurses to help staff his 14-bed hospital after Houston facilities started appealing for help to care for patients who no longer needed intensive care but were not ready to go home.

“Normally, we are referring to them,” Gularte said. “Now, they are referring to us.”

Donald M. Yealy, chair of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said rather than sending staff to other states, his hospital has helped others virtually, particularly to support pulmonary and intensive care physicians.

“Covid has been catalytic in how we think about health care,” Yealy said, providing lessons that will outlast the pandemic.

But telehealth can do little to relieve the fatigue and fear that goes with front-line work in a prolonged pandemic. Donning and doffing masks, gowns and gloves is time consuming. Nurses worry about taking the virus home to their families.

“It is high energy work with a constant grind that is hard on people,” said Michael Sweat, director of the Center for Global Health at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Coronavirus has turned the regular staffing challenge at Harris Health in Houston into a daily life-or-death juggle for Pamela Russell, associate administrator of nursing operations, who helps provide supplemental workers for the system’s two public hospitals and 46 outpatient clinics.

Now, 162 staff members — including more than 50 nurses — are quarantined, either because they tested positive or are awaiting results. Many others need flexible schedules to accommodate child care, she said. Some cannot work in coronavirus units because of their own medical conditions. A few contract nurses left abruptly after learning their units would soon be taking covid-positive patients.

Russell has turned to the state and the international nonprofit Project Hope for resources, even as she acts as a morale booster, encouraging restaurants to send meals and supporting the hospital CEO in his cheerleading rounds.

“It’s hard to say how long we can do this. I just don’t know” said Russell, who praised the commitment of the nurses. “Like I said, it’s a calling. But I don’t see it being sustainable.”