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Oregon workers plead for more face masks, protective gear

Workers across Oregon issued an urgent call Monday for the federal government to do more to get face masks, face shields, ventilators and other essential medical equipment into the hands of those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nurses, doctors, home health aids, nursing home workers, grocery store employees and others said during a teleconference they don’t have the personal protective equipment they need to keep themselves and the public safe.

They want supplies distributed immediately from the Strategic National Stockpile, and they’re pleading with President Donald Trump to put the rarely used Defense Production Act into full effect. The act requires American businesses to manufacture and ship supplies during times of national crisis.

In some hospitals, nurses are donning swim goggles and wearing the same surgical mask throughout their 12-hour shifts, even though the masks should be swapped out for each new patient, according to those speaking at the teleconference.

“Nurses are the people who run toward the fire to help others. Right now, we’re getting burned,” said Oregon Nurses Association Executive Director Sarah Laslett. “Without proper safety equipment, Oregon’s nurses and allied health workers will get sick. If nurses and allied health workers aren’t protected, there won’t be anyone left to care for COVID-19 patients.”

Laslett said the stories she’s hearing from nurses in the field about the lack of supplies are appalling.

“The storm is coming. We have to act now,” she said.

Home care worker Irene Hunt goes into patients’ homes in the Springfield area. She said home health workers have been largely ignored during the COVID-19 crisis and don’t have the face masks they need.

The virus could prove fatal to workers, their families and their medically fragile patients, Hunt said.

She is afraid of infecting her daughter and her 70-year-old mother-in-law, who is caring for the girl.

Hunt said she is picking up homemade face masks sewn by members of her church and giving them to other home care workers who have to ride the bus.

To be effective, homemade face masks need to be made of the right materials and include a filtering layer. Cloth by itself does not provide adequate protection and can be dangerous if it gets saturated, Laslett said.

Homemade masks are not a solution, especially for medical providers caring for patients infected with COVID-19, she said.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said his wife is a nurse and he is keenly aware of the risks nurses, doctors, caregivers, paramedics and others face on the job.

Their immune systems can be overwhelmed by the high viral loads they face when helping COVID-19 patients.

Merkley said those on the front lines don’t have the personal protective equipment they need.

“It is unconscionable that we are instead leaving them on their own to come up with makeshift half-measures that put their health and lives at risk. We have better options to meet the urgent need for PPE, starting with the Defense Production Act, and it’s time for the president to pull out the stops to protect Americans,” he said.

While Oregon and many other states are under partial lockdown, until recently Trump was saying he wanted to lift social distancing measures by Easter, which is April 12 this year.

Merkley said mixed messages from the administration that conflict with public health measures aren’t helping Americans grasp the importance of social distancing.

On Sunday, Trump backtracked on his open-by-Easter goal and extended social distancing guidelines through April 30.

Meanwhile, Rick Miller, chief executive officer of the Avamere group of nursing and assisted living facilities, said facilities and home care agencies are in crisis. They’re coping with critical shortages of personal protective equipment, especially in Washington and Oregon.

“We’ve reached out to suppliers across the world and had little success, but what supplies we have found have skyrocketed in price,” Miller said. “Surgical masks are up 20 to 40 times, N95 masks are up five to 10 times, and gloves are up three to five times what they were just a few weeks ago. When we can order supplies, they are getting stuck at U.S. Customs, and sometimes we’re actually bidding against the federal government for these supplies. We need to make sure that enough supplies and equipment are being made available for everyone who needs it.”

Grocery store employee Melody Gramley, who works in Salem, said some customers are standing too close to other people and not covering their coughs and sneezes. Grocery store workers are among those who feel left behind when it comes to protective gear and priority COVID-19 testing.

“Any employee who deals with the public is essential, and deserves to be protected. Anything that protects essential workers like us protects the public,” Gramley said.

Dr. Danny Jacobs, president of Oregon Health and Sciences University, and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., were among those calling for a loosening of regulations to allow Oregon businesses to start making medical supplies. They also want engineering specifications to be made public.

A broad range of companies could switch gears, including Nike and the dental equipment manufacturer A-dec in the Willamette Valley, Bonamici said.

Gov. Kate Brown said she can’t understand why the federal government isn’t doing more to allow businesses to start making medical equipment. She said it appears some people are more interested in protecting the business interests of a handful of companies that hold key patents than in protecting the American people.

“We’re going to have to make our own equipment,” Brown said.

In the Rogue Valley, more than 130 local engineers, inventors, doctors, teachers, business owners and other have teamed up to make face shields and other equipment — even though much of what they’re doing is currently illegal due to patent laws and Food and Drug Administration regulations.

Local residents and businesses have also responded enthusiastically to a call from Jackson County officials to donate face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes from 7-10 a.m. every day of the week at the Expo, 1 Peninger Road, Central Point.

Despite the lack of protective equipment, Laslett said health care workers aren’t walking away from their jobs. Instead, nurses are stepping forward to take on extra shifts.

Jacobs said he sees the same thing going on among medical workers at OHSU.

“People are running toward this challenge,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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