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Protective Equipment Remains In Limited Supply, Says Oregon Physician Group

An Asante employee at a COVID-19 testing station in Medford.
Lauren Van Sickle, Asante
An Asante employee at a COVID-19 testing station in Medford.

Shortages of protective medical gear like masks and gowns have been an ongoing problem for first responders during the coronavirus pandemic. A recent survey sent to over 500 emergency physicians across Oregon suggests that shortages still exist in many hospitals.

According to the survey done by the Oregon chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, over 75% of physicians in the emergency department feel they could be safer during their shifts if they had more personal protective equipment or PPE. Only about 20% said they’re not worried about bringing an infection home to people they live with.

Just under two percent are choosing not to return home at all, instead living in hotels or trailers out of concern of spreading COVID-19.

Some health providers are still scared at work, says Mike McCaskill, a doctor at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford and the president of the physician’s group.

“They have one N95 respirator mask to wear for an entire week,” McCaskill says. “At the end of the day that mask is put in a paper bag with their name on it, there’s an attempt made to re-sterilize it, and then they return the next morning, pull the mask out of the bag and wear it for the remainder of the week.”

Hospitals are required to maintain a supply of protective equipment, according to rules from the Governor’s office to reopen counties. Rural hospitals must have a 14-day supply of PPE while large hospitals need 30 days worth.

But, McCaskill says, the standards for how long protective equipment can be used have changed during the pandemic after the federal government put out new crisis guidelines. The week-long use of an N95 mask is just one example.

“That’s not felt to be best practice,” he says. “Certainly, it’s crisis guidelines, but it’s not standard CDC guidelines.”

The demands for protective equipment is also increasing as hospitals across the state welcome back patients for elective procedures. And public health officials anticipate reopening businesses will spur an increase in cases of COVID-19.

With their findings from the survey, McCaskill’s group is pushing for more transparency from hospitals in the form of data about PPE levels so that hospital staff can be more informed and confident that they’re safe.

“We are working with [Oregon Health Authority] to refine the process of publicly reporting the PPE supply, which we know is critical to keeping our hospital workforce safe,” wrote Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems in a statement. “Hospitals are prioritizing the need for transparency during the pandemic while working with the state to keep improving supply chains and PPE stockpiles.”

Carl Seger is another emergency physician at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center and a board member on the emergency physicians’ group. As the pandemic was unfolding in March and April, Seger says it was unclear what was going to happen in the Rogue Valley. Out of precaution, he decided to live in his RV for over three weeks rather than risk infecting his wife, who is also a doctor, or their three kids.

But, he says, Asante has been more transparent about protective equipment levels than some other hospital systems.

“I have a good idea of what we have of PPE on hand. I know our disease incidence, and I know our ability to test, therefore I felt safe to go home,” Seger says. “It is powerful for hospital systems to be transparent about what is available.”

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.