Frontline workers need PPE to keep saving lives in battle against COVID-19

By John Pearson, Special to CalMatters

If there is anything worse than an emergency room crowded with sick COVID-19 patients, it’s an emergency room crowded with doctors, nurses and essential hospital staff too sick to care for them.

California must take immediate and aggressive action to keep health care and other frontline workers safe or that nightmare scenario could very well become our reality. 

The federal government has bungled its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and put us all in harm’s way.

It failed to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously and prepare. It failed to operationalize testing. And it failed to mobilize our nation’s incredible resources. The absence of a presidential order mobilizing production of medicine, ventilators and personal protective equipment under the Defense Production Act is glaringly irresponsible. It will cost lives.  But California has the opportunity to take such action itself – and, just as it has again and again, show the nation what foresight and leadership look like.

At Highland Hospital in Oakland where I am an emergency room nurse, my coworkers and I are putting our lives on the line everyday.  Often lacking the most basic medical grade equipment and supplies, we face unacceptable and avoidable risks. We are worried not just for ourselves, but for our families and our patients.  

When management locks up the PPE, coworkers have been forced to create protective coverings out of trash bags, or to go without protection at all.  Managers have directed health care workers to spray masks with cleaning solution and wear them all day or even all week. 

Our housekeeping workers – who face exposure alongside doctors and nurses – have been denied protective gear. These haphazard and medically unsound practices don’t just put health care workers in jeopardy, they compromise the incredible work California has done so far to slow the virus spread and save countless lives.  And we know the worst is yet to come. 

The largest surge in COVID-19 patients is expected to hit our hospitals in the coming weeks, and health care workers simply can’t wait any longer for the federal government to deliver the supplies and protective equipment we need to stay safe. We are now counting on Gov. Gavin Newsom to show the kind of leadership he’s already demonstrated – from the nation’s first stay-at-home orders to standing up mobile medical units across the state – and ensure our workforce is strong enough to get our communities through this crisis alive. 

In this state of emergency, Newsom has the legal power to mobilize California’s industry and bring production of life-saving supplies to scale, and he must use it.  The actions he announced recently to ramp up manufacturing and procurement of an estimated 200 million medical masks per month are a good start.  Yet the state’s own estimates show we will need billions of pieces of personal protective equipment – including not just masks but gloves, face shields, shoe coverings, gowns, disinfectant and more before the pandemic subsides.  

With production underway, the state of California must also create and lead a transparent process of distribution and planning for frontline workers’ needs.  Because journalists demanded answers and documents, the public now knows hospitals were not being truthful when they told us they were prepared – even though they knew they had too few supplies to keep frontline workers and our patients safe. That’s why the state must rigorously enforce the rules requiring hospitals to provide a safe workplace – and have a mechanism to hear directly from those of us on the frontlines about where they are falling short. 

All eyes are on California now because we have led the way in “flattening the curve” and saving lives.  In the coming weeks, our resolve and our success will be put to the test like never before. California must deliver the life-saving equipment workers on the frontlines need to save our own lives – and yours. 

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John Pearson is an emergency room nurse at Highland Hospital in Oakland, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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