Health Care Workers Struggle To Protect Themselves From COVID-19

Mar 24, 2020
Originally published on March 24, 2020 10:46 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What's it like to be a health care worker right now? We are hearing their voices all week.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Seth Fikkert is a nurse at the Providence Regional Medical Center outside of Seattle. On his first day inside a coronavirus unit, the windows were all foggy from bleach wipes. Another nurse helped him put on protective gear, and he stepped past warning signs into a patient's room.

SETH FIKKERT: I suddenly was very aware of the risk. I was looking at my protective equipment, realizing that the gown doesn't cover my neck. But then I also am suddenly with this person who's scared, you know. I mean, they're very isolated in these rooms, and their caregivers are coming in looking like a character for "E.T." You know, it's a very human moment, where we're both looking at each other. We're both scared.

INSKEEP: Wow. And it's only becoming scarier for him because the specialized masks known as in N95 respirators have become a precious commodity.

FIKKERT: Initially, these masks were meant to be single-use, and even within the first week, they were asking us to use them multiple times with the same patient.

INSKEEP: And soon, safety standards changed again. Fikkert now usually wears a basic surgical mask and goggles and a protective gown a little bit less, and he expects those to become scarce, too.

KING: In Santa Rosa, Calif., Nurse Jackie Cedarberg (ph) has a similar story.

JACKIE CEDARBURG: We're being rationed masks. I've worn my N95 for four days.

KING: Cedarburg says she and her colleagues are improvising, even though hospital guidelines forbid it. One nurse actually brought in handmade fabric masks.

CEDARBURG: I'm putting this home-sewn mask over my N95 just to kind of protect my N95, to keep it lasting longer, although it's already expired. And then we are putting on, like, a - kind of like a beanie for our hair, to keep our hair out of the way, like colorful beanies. We use our own goggles, like ski goggles or, like, anything. So if you look at the other countries, they're legit in hazmat suits.

INSKEEP: Think about that - a mask to protect her used mask. And without proper equipment, she fears that nurses will bring the virus home to their families.

CEDARBURG: It just feels so wrong and so unfair that it has come to this for us because we want to take care of everyone; we do. But not having the equipment we need to do this right now - I haven't slept well since Tuesday. I can't eat.

INSKEEP: Now, Seth Fikkert, the nurse in Washington, took a test when he got a sore throat. It took five days to get results, and he spent those days quarantined in his bedroom away from his wife and children.

FIKKERT: If we don't improve the turnaround for these tests, that means even nurses who are negative are still going to be out of the game for days at a time.

KING: That was Seth Fikkert in Washington state, and we also heard from Jackie Cedarburg in California. They're both nurses who are treating patients with COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.