Risk getting sick or don’t see patients: health care providers facing conflict as N95 masks running out

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some Central Texas doctors and nurses are concerned they’re quickly running out of protective gear.

They’re especially worried about not being able to restock N95 masks once they run out.

KXAN asked Austin Regional Clinic’s Chief Medical Officer Jay Zdunek if they have enough of those respiratory protective devices. He responded, “Currently, we have enough masks to protect our providers and to protect our workers as it currently stands today. Two weeks from now, we can’t really answer that question.”

Dr. Kelly Jolet at Southwestern Pediatrics posted on her social media page Wednesday asking people to donate masks they don’t need.

“I think being a doctor is a responsibility and a privilege, but I also have the responsibility to take care of our staff,” she explained. “Once our staff members start to get sick, we’ll be able to see fewer and fewer patients, so we’re doing our best to keep them safe.”

Jolet said the masks are needed to conduct flu and strep tests safely.

Zdunek said since the new coronavirus spreads through droplets and people who are not showing symptoms appear to spread the virus, protecting doctors, nurses and staff is crucial.

He told KXAN there’s some good news with companies ramping up production, but “I do not know how fast any companies can ramp up,” Zdunek said. “I’m sure there’s a certain time period to get their production in line and to go live with it, but we really can’t anticipate when that would be.”

Zdunek said healthcare workers also want to be prepared if there’s a sudden surge in patients. At this time, there are too many uncertainties associated with the virus, he said.

Dr. Robyn McCarty at Texas Sports and Family Medicine told KXAN she’s going to run out of masks this week.

“We can’t even get the little surgical masks,” she said. “We don’t have any face shields. I’m using goggles that I used in chemistry in college 30 plus years ago.”

She said especially for smaller practices, “everything’s back-ordered indefinitely.” McCarty explained, “It’s on order allocation, which means if you hadn’t ordered it before you don’t get very high on the list.”

She said her friend made a homemade mask using a cloth diaper and nursing pads. It gives them about eight layers of protection.

“It’s not an N95, but it’s better than nothing,” she said.

Cindy Zolnierek, CEO of Texas Nurses Association, told KXAN when the association conducted a survey about the new coronavirus, the association received 150 responses in two hours. Many of them came from concerned nurses who were worried about protective equipment.

“One nurse indicated that they had used a month supply in just a few days,” she said.

Zolnierek read us some comments that were submitted.

One read, “Because there’s a shortage of equipment, my employer is comfortable saying it’s acceptable to use regular masks, instead of N95 respirators. I feel like they don’t care about our health and well being.”

She said another concern the nurses had was about communication.

One person told the association, “I work at a hospital in El Paso, and the information changes every day regarding protection, how to use the necessary equipment. There’s no actual plan when asked. Everybody says a different thing. We as nurses need to know what to do in case we take a positive case.”

The association said there needs to be clear, accurate communication from hospitals to nurses and doctors, adding, in situations like this, you can never over-communicate.

When it comes to the supply of N95 masks, doctors and nurses said if you’re healthy, there’s no need for you to stockpile N95s. You should continue to practice social distancing to help prevent the spread of the virus.

They also suggested if you have any extra at home, consider donating those to your local healthcare provider.

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