When she read that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were suggesting that, as a last resort, medical professionals wrap bandanas or scarves around their faces for protection against COVID-19, Dr. Sofia Warner thought, “I could probably sew something better than a bandana.”
Then Warner, a resident at Mass General Hospital, tweeted, “can’t believe I’m sitting in the hospital thinking about how to sew my own face mask. #GetMePPE,” alongside the image of a paper on how to DIY a simple respiratory mask.
With supplies dwindling fast, home-crafting gear is just one method medical professionals are considering for personal protective equipment or PPE. A set includes a face mask, preferably a specialized N95 respirator mask, safety goggles or face shield, gown and gloves. Healthcare workers need to wear this equipment when testing or treating people who could have COVID-19.
Health workers have also put the call out on social media, using the hashtag #GetMePPE, asking the public to donate face masks in particular. Speaking on CNN on Thursday, Brown University emergency physician Dr. Megan Ranney said, “We are pleading on social media, get me PPE to keep me and my patients safe. The president may say that things are being produced, but they are sure as heck are not showing up in my state or in the states of my colleagues across the country.”
Health workers have also begun using alternative equipment for protection like ski goggles, or reusing protective gear – which can put them at risk of infection, says Dr. Maryanne Bombaugh, the president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.
“It’s quite incredible in this day and age that we have to do this. And it’s incredibly unsafe,” she says.
Community clinics may have the direst shortages. The Community Health Center of Cape Cod has only 65 sets of protective gear, says Bombaugh, who also works at the clinic.
“We are endangering the safety of our health care workforce as well as our patients, and it’s a major issue. It needs to be addressed immediately,” she says.
Institutions that use protective equipment have begun donating their inventory to medical professionals to help with the shortage. That’s largely been workers in other, health related industries like dentists, veterinarians, construction companies and biology researchers. Christina Warinner, a geneticist at Harvard University, says she and other research groups around the world have handed their supplies to health workers.
“We want to do our best to support our doctors and nurses. That’s why we’re donating our stocks of PPE. I encourage other group leaders and laboratory managers to do the same,” she said. “Even though each lab only has a small supply, collectively we can make a big difference.”
That may not be enough. Trish Powers, a nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a leader of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said she and her colleagues are reusing masks because they want to make sure there’s enough left to care for more patients. After seeing Italy experience a large spike in COVID-19 cases, Powers says she fears the worst is yet to come.
“I’m praying. I’m hoping that we don’t end up like Italy,” she said at a virtual news conference this week. “But what if we do? We have to responsible in that regard.”
There’s still a chance that the steps being taken by public health officials, such as encouraging residents to stay home as much as possible and limit physical contact with others, may help prevent a sudden surge of patients who need hospitalization due to COVID-19, says Eileen Searle, the biothreats clinical operations manager at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“I’m very hopeful that some of the measures will mitigate that,” she says. “We’re all really grateful for people putting up with the challenges they’re facing in social distancing. By doing that, they really are helping us and helping us be able to take care of patients.”