"It’s scary, frustrating and demoralizing."
As coronavirus cases spread across the U.S. and in Oklahoma, health care workers are facing a critical shortage of masks, surgical gowns and other personal protective equipment to protect them from COVID-19.
Doctors and nurses told The Frontier they’re cutting back on how much gear they use in an effort to conserve supplies. Providers said they are also worried about the lack of testing in the state, a problem that has lingered since the virus started to surface in Oklahoma. Some doctors expressed frustration about the process for the state to get necessities to clinics.
“It’s scary, frustrating and demoralizing,” said Dr. Kerri Ellis.
Ellis, who has practiced medicine in Oklahoma for 20 years, owns a clinic in Beggs, a town about 30 miles south of Tulsa. Most of her patients are on Medicaid. For two months, Ellis has tried to buy protective masks for her staff and patients, but has been told by distributors there is a wait list, she said.
When her clinic ran out of hand sanitizer about a month ago, Ellis started to make her own with guidance from the World Health Organization, which calls for a mixture of alcohol, glycerol and hydrogen peroxide.
“We’re passing it around to our delivery people, to our patients who can’t afford it or can’t find it,” Ellis said. “But these are the kinds of things where there should be some kind of coordinated effort from the state or preferably the federal level. We’re really left to our own devices.”
Ellis said wood workers have brought her face masks and insulation workers have given her protective suits. A more coordinated response from the state would help health care workers, especially those in rural areas, she said.
“You just do what you can and try not to die. And try not to let your patients die,” she said.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health on March 11 sent the Strategic National Stockpile, a massive stockpile of emergency medical supplies the federal government maintains, a request for supplies including “500,000 N95 masks, 300,000 face shields, and 400,000 surgical gowns,” according to ProPublica. The state started receiving supplies five days later, but has only gotten a fraction of what it requested.
All of the items were expired, health department spokesman Cody McDonnell told ProPublica and confirmed to The Frontier. However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent the agency a note stating that some of the masks had been performance-tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “should be fine to use,” ProPublica reported.
An Oklahoma State Department of Health spokeswoman said Friday afternoon that the agency continues to get supplies in from HHS. The department was working to take inventory of the supplies, and that there was no data available yet on how much equipment the state had, she said.
Dr. Larry Bookman, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, has asked Gov. Kevin Stitt to create a COVID-19 task force to offer advice.
In an interview with The Frontier on Friday, Bookman said the creation of the task force would improve communication between the government and health care providers.
Bookman said the situation with COVID-19 is moving so quickly that it’s important that someone representing the health community has the governor’s ear daily. The task force could also include legislative representatives, he said.
“If all three are working together, they all know what the others are doing,” Bookman said. “Right now no one knows what doctors are short on, but no one’s asking.”
Charlie Hannema, Stitt’s communications chief, said on Friday that the governor was working to establish an interagency COVID-19 response team that would include a doctor to help with the medical supply chain and providing equipment to health care providers. The team had its first briefing on Friday morning, he said.
LaWanna Halstead, the vice president of quality and clinical initiatives for the Oklahoma Hospital Association, said Friday that federal officials so far had granted the state less than a quarter of what it requested and the supplies had yet to be distributed to hospitals.
“Our hospitals are concerned,” Halstead said.
Halstead said as of Friday afternoon that no hospitals in the state were completely out of any type of supplies. However, she said, hospitals were concerned about what their stock might look like in 10 days.
At a White House press conference on Thursday, President Donald Trump said millions of masks were in production, but getting supplies would largely be up to individual states.
“As with testing, the governors are supposed to be doing it. We’ll help out, and we’ll help out wherever we can by volume and in some cases great volume with the masks as an example, which are really a problem,” Trump said.
Kris Gose, president of the OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, said the hospital is not out of supplies, but it had started to reuse N95 masks and some triage gowns. N95 masks filter at least 95% of airborne particles.
“We’re looking at basically every solution possible,” Gose said.
Toni Pratt-Reid is a family nurse practitioner and owns three clinics in Oklahoma. She said her clinics have a limited stock of supplies and that she has about 50 masks left for her staff.
“We could anytime go through 50 a day, but we’ve got to be really, really cautious on how we use them,” she said.
Her biggest frustration and complaint though, was the lack of testing in the state, which has struggled with its testing capacity since the virus started to emerge in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health announced on Friday that it has entered into a partnership with the private lab Diagnostic Labs of Oklahoma, and that more than 300 specimens had been sent to a facility in Dallas for processing.
As of Saturday morning, the health department reported 613 people had been tested for the virus and 144 tests were pending. Fifty-three people had tested positive for COVID-19 and 10 patients had been hospitalized, according to the health department.
Pratt-Reid estimated less than 10% of her patients who sought to get tested for the virus were able to secure it. She said she has spent more than an hour on one patient trying to find testing.
“It would be hit or miss and that’s really difficult,” she said.
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