Health care workers on the front lines

By Don McIntosh

As hospitals prepare for an expected surge in serious respiratory illnesses from the coronavirus, medical staff are sounding the alarm.

Casey Parr, a union shop steward, has worked at OHSU as a respiratory therapist for 10 years. In direct contact with COVID-19 patients, he’s being given just one N-95 mask per day.

AFSCME Local 328 officer Casey Parr, a respiratory therapist at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), is on the front line of the epidemic. Part of his job is to operate the mechanical ventilators that will keep people alive, but he and his co-workers are already running short of the gear they’ll need to keep themselves from getting infected.

For now, Parr says OHSU has no shortage of disposable gloves and gowns, but N-95 masks are in desperately short supply.

The normal practice is to put on a disposable N-95 mask before seeing any patient who may have infectious disease, and discard the mask afterward. Now, Parr says, he’s being issued just one N-95 mask for each 12-hour shift that he works at the hospital. After each patient, he takes off the mask, which is potentially soiled with the virus, stores it in a paper bag, and then uses gloves to carefully put it back on before the next patient.

Parr said OHSU also has about 50 PAPRs (Powered Air-Purifying Respirators) to protect workers, but is out of the disposable face shields that complete the seal on the devices.

“To be honest, we’re scared,” Parr said. “We don’t feel supported with the safety equipment we need. There’s a lot of fear about contacting this virus and then transmitting it to either our co-workers or patients, or our family.”

Parr, 35, lives with his wife, their 9-month old baby boy, and his mother-in-law, who’s approaching her 70s.

“It’s a frightening thought to think that I could contract this virus, and transmit it.”

As an extra precaution, Parr is now changing out of his scrubs before he leaves, and leaving his work shoes at the hospital. His street clothes then go immediately into the washer when he gets home, and he showers before he greets his family.

For employees who are symptomatic, OHSU has set up a drive-through test. At least 12 of Parr’s co-workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

For now, the whole OHSU campus is on lockdown, and no patients whatsoever are being allowed visitors except in very extreme situations. OHSU cancelled all elective surgeries to conserve protective equipment. Suspected coronavirus patients in serious condition are being assigned to the hospital’s 14th floor. Parr says he and his co-workers generally don’t know which patients have the virus; COVID-19 presents a pretty broad set of symptoms, including cough, fever, and shortness of breath, and tests are still rationed, while results still take several days.

Parr says the hospital could reach capacity within a few weeks.

“It’s frustrating,” Parr said. “There’s this feeling that we should have been prepared for this. A global pandemic is always a threat. We should have had systems in place. Somebody dropped the ball.”

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