Medical Gear Shortages “A Key Gap” in Virus Response

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Local hospital union leaders say nurses are scrambling to make due with shortages of key supplies as the entire Bay Area strains to deal with the widening coronavirus epidemic. 

At Highland Hospital in Oakland, John Pearson, head of the hospital union chapter, says the county’s system has long struggled to maintain sufficient supplies.

While he would not say if any Coronavirus patients are being treated there, he did say five patients right now are being medically isolated. 

“Normally, each of those patients would have one cart of supplies to protect people taking care of them,” he said, “and there’s one cart being shared for five patients right now.”

Pearson said in addition to normal shortages, the hospital is running short of cleaning wipes as well as the cleaning crews needed to make sure rooms are sanitary before patients are treated. 

 “It’s much, much worse because of this crisis.” 

While Alameda county officials did not get back to us about Pearson’s account, San Francisco officials acknowledged that they and other counties  do face supply challenges. 

Psychiatric nurse and hospital workers union organizer Jennifer Esteen said she has been told that triage nurses in San Francisco can’t always get the N95 respirator masks needed to protect them by filtering out 95 percent of particles. 

“They don’t have what they need to be safe and to keep the public safe,” she said, adding that nurses evaluating walk-ins have reported not being able to get a clear answer about the availability of masks. 

While officials say the city has a cache of 48,000 medical masks, San Francisco health director Grant Colfax says the city has experienced shortages, just like many Bay Area hospitals. The state has pitched in by providing some of its reserve of 21 million N95 masks, but those masks have elastic straps that are old and are at risk of snapping. 

“All local jurisdictions that I have talked to and am aware of are working under a short supply.  This is a key gap in our ability to effectively respond to the epidemic,” Colfax said at a City Hall press conference this week, adding agencies are doing the best they can while pushing to get more equipment when and where possible. 

“Personal protective equipment is a vital part to this response and I want to ensure that we are able to keep our health care workers protected with the best evidence possible, so they can do their job.”

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