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How Idaho's health care workers are dealing with a scarcity of N95 masks

“I’m holding onto these things like they’re gold".

BOISE, Idaho — Editor's note: The above video discusses what supplies Idahoans can donate to heathcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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For the last week and a half, Alicia and her coworkers have had to share N95 masks because the hospital where she works doesn’t have enough of them.

She works in an emergency room in a rural hospital in western Idaho, which is short on masks, and having trouble acquiring more — she said a recent donation of more than 20 N95 masks would “make a huge difference.” Alicia is not her real name; she spoke with the Idaho Press on a condition of anonymity out of concerns for her job.

N95 masks are considered personal protective equipment — or PPE — and right now first responders and health care workers need them for protection against the new coronavirus. They cover a wearer’s nose and mouth and filter out 95% of very small particles in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health care workers normally use the masks whenever they are in contact with a patient presenting with symptoms of a respiratory illness; the masks are different from the simple cloth masks more commonly used.

Since the coronavirus has spread across the globe, N95 masks are in short supply, even in places without a major outbreak of the illness. Agencies are having difficulties finding them. Idaho has received at least two shipments of PPE from the federal government’s stock, and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare tracks the gear through a statewide system to help keep supplies up across the state.

Still, when asked at a press conference Wednesday to name Idaho’s weakest link in its preparation for the virus, Idaho Office of Emergency Management Director Brad Richy mentioned PPE.

“I think understanding how long our PPE is going to last,” Richy said. “And understanding which individual item — how long that’s going to last. What our burn rate is.”

'LIKE THEY'RE GOLD'

To decrease the burn rate of their N95 masks, Alicia and her coworkers are cleaning masks, she said, and they’re putting simple cloth masks inside the N95 masks. The N95 masks are cleaned in between uses. qEach person has their own cloth mask that goes inside the N95 mask, she said.

All health care providers are having difficulty obtaining personal protective equipment because of the increased demand created by the spread of the new coronavirus.

“We are working as a health system, and with our parent company, Trinity Health, to maximize our supply chains to ensure sufficient resources to protect both health care workers and patients,” said Mark Snider, spokesman for Saint Alphonsus Health System.

St. Luke’s Health System, too, is dealing with the shortage.

“Our supply chain management team continues to closely monitor our supplies — especially critical items related to our response to COVID-19 that are in short supply,” St. Luke's spokeswoman Beth Toll said. “Masks are an example. So far, we’ve been able to make adjustments where needed. It continues to be a challenge that all health care providers are facing.”

While the need for personal protective equipment is a common denominator across the health care system right now, Alicia said she believes rural hospitals are having a harder time with it.

“I think it’s kind of happening rurally,” she said. “They’re having trouble getting supplies at this time because the suppliers are on back order. … Some of these rural hospitals don’t keep a lot in stock to start with, there’s just not a big need for it. And so when something like this happens and they need it, they’re having trouble getting it.”

Yet it isn’t just emergency room doctors who are running low on supplies. Other health care workers who are treating patients presenting with symptoms of COVID-19 are running low on PPE. Brad Bigford is a nurse practitioner who operates Table Rock Mobile Medicine, travels throughout the valley and sees patients in their home, some of whom are displaying flu-like symptoms. Getting coughed on or exposed to illness isn’t an unusual occurrence for him.

He estimates his business has increased by about 50% because people want to avoid going to a hospital during the COVID-19 outbreak. As of Thursday he had 10 N95 masks, he said, but he’s been using the same ones for days.

“I’m holding onto these things like they’re gold,” he said.

Travis Spencer works as the EMS director for Victory Medical Transportation. His agency transports patients between facilities, such as nursing homes and hospitals. Right now, because of a shortage of N95 masks, employees are only using them when they are interacting with people who they know have COVID-19, or who are very likely to have the disease. His company has placed multiple orders with providers of the masks, but all of them are on back-order right now.

He’s heard others suggest keeping N95 masks out of service and in a paper bag for a period of time, since the coronavirus can only live on paper for a set period of time.

THEFTS

Part of the reason Alicia said her hospital is running low on PPE is because people — staff and others — stole items, she said. They didn’t just take N95 masks; gloves and hand sanitizer also went missing.

Scott Tucker, the clinic administrator of Women’s Health Services in Boise said that earlier in the season, his clinic’s staff placed boxes of simple masks out for patients to use. People took whole boxes though, so now staff members must hand out the masks individually.

Thanks to a recent donation of N95 masks, Tucker said his office now has 30.

“They’re under lock and key,” he said.

Stockpiling masks isn’t necessary for the general public. According to the World Health Organization, people only need masks for protection if they are caring for people suspected of having COVID-19 — as Idaho’s health care workers are. If a person is coughing or sneezing — or if they have a confirmed case of COVID-19 — they can help prevent the spread of the disease by wearing a mask, because scientists believe the coronavirus spreads through the particles of a cough or sneeze. But for the average person who isn’t showing symptoms and who is not caring for a COVID-19 patient doesn’t need a mask, and certainly not a box of masks.

Medical experts across the globe for months have said the best way the general public can prevent the spread of the new coronavirus is to wash their hands and limit contact with others outside the home.

“The big thing that everybody needs to know is to stay calm and stop panicking,” he said. 

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