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Southern Oregon Hospitals Are Feeling The Pinch Of Protective Equipment Shortages

Image of person in protective gear standing at table.
Lauren Van Sickle, Asante
A health care worker at Asante doing COVID-19 testing in Medford.

Health care workers across Oregon are facing an urgent shortage of protective equipment like gloves, gowns and, in particular, masks as they test for cases of COVID-19 and treat patients who have been infected with the virus.

Oregon nurses are being advised to reuse personal protective equipment, known as PPE, that under normal circumstances would not be tolerated, according to health care advocates.

“In some facilities, nurses are reporting that they only have 48 hours [of] PPE left. And some folks have been using the same mask already for the last three weeks,” says Kevin Mealy, a spokesperson for the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA). “It’s a dire need to replenish those supplies.”

According to Mealy, nurses are being asked to reuse masks, face shields and equipment that hasn’t been sanitized between patients. The shortage is affecting all major Oregon health systems, including those in southern Oregon, he says.

“We have been told we don’t have enough PPE. I don’t think we have enough negative pressure rooms. I’m afraid we won’t be cared for since caregiver infection rates are so much higher than regular infection rates. We need much more info and retraining on infection control and care of COVID patients,” wrote a nurse from southern Oregon in an email provided by ONA.

Global demand for the hospital safety products has outstripped supply as countries everywhere are in the midst of combatting their own cases of coronavirus.

Providence St. Joseph Hospital, which operates Providence Medford Medical Center, recently launched an initiative called the 100 Million Mask Challenge where volunteers can help sew medical-grade masks. The volunteer effort focused on Seattle, Washington, the epicenter of COVID-19 cases in the United States. The 100 Million Mask Challenge has not yet been extended to the Medford area.

Last week the office of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown began calling for donations of personal protective equipment from private businesses like contractors and electricians in an effort to restock the state’s cache for COVID-19 preparedness.

Southern Oregon’s Asante hospital system is initiating a similar plea for help.

“We are asking anyone in the community – businesses, individuals, private contractors, self-employed – anyone who has a supply (large or small) of critical personal protective medical supplies to donate them to the hospital,” says Lauren Van Sickle, a spokesperson for Asante.

According to Asante's nursing leadership, the hospital monitors recommenations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Oregon Health Authority "to provide the highest level of safety to our staff. With critical shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), conservation is critical for us at Asante. We have implimented multiple patient care workflows to conserve PPE that are evidence based." 

Representatives for Providence Medford Medical Center did not respond to specific questions about supply levels of protective equipment at their southern Oregon hospital.

Restocking safety equipment for health care workers is critical to stopping the global health pandemic, says Kevin Mealy with the Oregon Nurses Association.

“Protecting nurses and health care workers on the front lines is what’s going to help stem the spread of the virus,” he says. “If nurses aren’t protected, patients aren’t safe and the virus will continue to spread.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.