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Lawmakers hear about medical equipment shortage fears

By Liz Moomey

liz.moomey@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Representatives of the North Carolina Nurses Association relayed fears about the lack of personal protective equipment available to fight the COVID-19 outbreak during a COVID-19 legislative committee meeting on Thursday.

During the House Select Committee on COVID-19’s Health Care Working Group Tuesday morning, association CEO Tina Gordon and president Dr. Dennis Taylor said the declining supply of personal protective equipment — which includes gloves, gowns, masks, respirators, goggles and face shields — has nurses concerned about their own well-being and the well-being of those around them.

“This is scary for some nurses. They certainly consider themselves to be your front line soldiers in this, but they do not feel like that have the protection — ammunition — to fight this virus as well as they want to,” Gordon said.

The North Carolina Nurses Association reached out to nurses to survey their concerns. Gordon and Taylor shared those with representatives, including Rep. Wayne Sasser, R-67, who is a member of the group and is from Albemarle.

“We certainly acknowledge that there are differences in the situation from location to location, geography to geography and workplace to workplace,” she said. “Not all nurses are reporting challenges at this time and we’re glad about that. We were overwhelmed by the number of nurses who are telling us that the challenges that they are facing and that they’ll increase significantly in the coming days, weeks ahead.

According to the association, one nurse said, “This is the scariest time I’ve ever experienced. I am having to choose to reuse supplies and therefore risk my exposure. I feel unsafe. My patients are unsafe. Something needs to change immediately.”

Another said, “Re-using PPE for multiple shifts, lowering PPE requirements and ‘sterilization procedures’ is a definite concern.”

North Carolina nurses are also worried about child care, spreading the virus to immediate families, layoffs and possible reassignments, Gordon said.

“They need these items to do their jobs and do it without fear and without concern both for their own well-being and the well-being of the people around them,” Gordon said. “We are concerned that nurses will get ill at a higher rate because of these limitations in PPE. If they get sick, who is going to take their place?”

Taylor said studies after previous pandemics reported that N95 respirators could not be modified in the manufacturing process to be reused without “increasing the likelihood of infection.” There was no method of decontamination, and there was a risk of transmission of virus with the reuse, Taylor said.

Taylor reminded representatives in the working group that N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said the state only reached 30% of its need after the latest shipment on Monday from the national strategic stockpile.

Taylor said it’s not just hospitals that need protective equipment, either. It’s also nurses in primary care, urgent care, home health, prison and long-term care.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said the state on Thursday morning has seen a slight slowing in the daily increase of cases, but they are still growing. The state has seen an increase in hospitalizations. And the state is beginning to see outbreaks —two or more cases — in some longterm and adult care facilities as well as jails and prisons.

Cohen said it’s “incredibly worrisome” that that the federal government’s strategic stockpile was essentially out of supplies, as reported Wednesday. 

Cohen said the state’s public health departments have been running at “full speed” for nearly two months and that staff know it will be a long endeavor. 

“It’s a challenging attempt to make sure we are prepared, and I will be the first person who stands up and says ‘I am very happy that I was wrong, that we didn’t need all this and our people are not getting as sick as we thought they were going to be,’” said Gibbie Harris, Mecklenburg County Public Health director.

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