Updated at 2:25 p.m., March 21
They’re running out of gowns, face shields and N95 respirators that keep out airborne particles.
As Chicago-area hospitals treat a deluge of people potentially infected with COVID-19, and the number of cases dramatically climbs, doctors and nurses tell WBEZ they are in desperate need of gear to protect themselves.
Sometimes gloves are the wrong size. Sometimes they reuse paper masks. Anxiety is high.
This gear is known as personal protective equipment, or PPE. It’s critical to protecting nurses, doctors and others from getting sick and spreading COVID-19 to patients — and amongst themselves.
“We have to go into a manager’s office to ask for N95 masks because they are being rationed,” said Hilary Bolda, an emergency room nurse at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital, the anchor for the Cook County-run health system.
The health system is monitoring, not rationing N95 masks to make sure there are enough for health care workers who come into direct contact with COVID-19 patients, a spokeswoman said.
Illinois projects there could be 3,400 new COVID-19 cases a week from now if the pace of the past week keeps up.
“Our health care system doesn’t have any slack,” Dr. Emily Landon, the lead epidemiologist at UChicago Medicine, said during a news conference Friday. “There are no empty wards waiting for patients, or nurses waiting in the wings. We barely even have enough masks for the nurses that we have.”
Cincerlyn Lewis, a cardiology nurse at the South Side hospital, said the shortage of N95 masks is nerve-wracking. She said some of the nurses have tested positive for COVID-19. Others are isolating themselves because they’ve been exposed to the disease.
“There are over 2,000 nurses at the University of Chicago,” Lewis said. “If we get infected, who is going to be there to take care of the patients? And then we’re going back and forth, so we’re infecting our families.”
Lewis is among the unionized nurses at the hospital who are National Nurses United members. In a statement, the hospital’s president, Sharon O’Keefe, called the union’s allegations “false and reckless.”
“UChicago Medicine has never — and will never — put our nurses or other clinical providers or support staff at risk,” O’Keefe said.
She said the hospital has “adequate supplies” to keep nurses and doctors who are treating COVID-19 patients safe, and leaders there are working every day to find new resources to make sure they have enough protective gear and medical equipment for the pandemic.
Without much gear, health care workers are getting creative. They’re asking schools and students to donate their lab goggles. Some doctors are posting in private social media groups about hacking surgical masks by using double tape to seal them more tightly to their faces. Medical students are organizing drives for supplies.
The Illinois Health and Hospital Association, the influential lobbying group of nearly every hospital and health system in the state, is urging different industries to help. They’re calling on construction workers, dentists and veterinarians to donate face masks or N95 respirators to their local hospitals.
Outside hospitals, family physicians in neighborhood clinics are also scrambling to find protective equipment.
“Today we hit the lottery,” Dr. Laurie Carrier, chief medical officer of Heartland Health Centers, said on Thursday. One of her employees went to a hardware store and bought 24 three-packs of N95 masks — all the masks the store had.
Heartland, a network of clinics that mainly treats low-income people, placed an order for the masks in January, the same month the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 was a public health emergency.
“We were quickly told we would get them in six months,” Carrier said.
Public health officials stress that people not crowd hospital emergency departments if they suspect they’re sick with COVID-19, so pediatricians and family physicians might be the first stop.
Heartland and other family physicians are scaling back the number of patients they’ll see in the doctor’s office to reduce the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19. Instead, they’re doing more virtual visits with their patients.
Dr. Giulia Mobarhan, a pediatrician on the Northwest Side, said her office has surgical face masks and gloves, but not N95 respirators, face shields or gowns. To better protect her staff and patients from spreading COVID-19, her practice has canceled all check-ups for children older than 18 months. They’ve shifted check-ups for infants to the morning, and sick visits to the afternoon.
Patients and their parents are waiting in their cars when they arrive, then shuffled to an exam room.
“We’re in a different situation than ER doctors or ICU doctors,” Mobarhan said. “We have it hard in a sense that we don’t know who comes in has what.”
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County government for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch. Patrick Smith contributed to this story. Follow him @pksmid.