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'I've never felt more vulnerable': Nurse describes fears plaguing workers at Oregon hospital

An Oregon nurse pulls back the curtain and describes what life is like for front-line health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

PORTLAND, Ore. — At the beginning of her shift last week at an Oregon Coast hospital, a supervisor handed a nurse of more than 30 years an increasingly coveted N95 mask and told her to use it five times. The standard is once.

That wasn’t the only break from normal protocol.

“It came in a Rubbermaid container, like what you put your lunch in,” she said in an interview on Tuesday.

KGW is not identifying the nurse because she’s afraid she’ll be reprimanded for pulling back the curtain on what life is like for front-line health care workers grappling with a national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes things like gloves, masks and gowns.

We were connected to her through the Oregon Nurses Association, a union representing 15,000 nurses and health care workers statewide, and we verified her nursing license with the state registry.

On Tuesday, via phone, she was candid.

“I’ve never felt more vulnerable,” she said. “You can't see a virus, and I don't want to give it to somebody.”

The nurse said she’s also concerned about the lack of changes made to standard procedures when it comes to treating patients for things other than COVID-19.

She said doctors and nurses see and interact with those patients wearing no protective gear at all. That's normal during normal times, she said, but during a pandemic, when experts say this virus can go undetected for weeks, she feels unsafe.

“You can't listen to somebody's lungs and socially distance yourself,” she said. “You can't help them to the bathroom and socially distance yourself, and I'm without any protection.”

She added normal protocol tied to entering and leaving the hospital feels inadequate, too.

KGW has confirmed with major hospital groups, including OHSU and Providence, that, unless they've performed surgery, nurses and doctors are still being instructed to take their used scrubs home and wash them in their personal laundry machines.

Research shows detergent is indeed effective at killing the virus, but this nurse is worried about bringing those scrubs out of the hospital at all.

“I don't want to bring it home to my husband… I don't want to take it out in the community, Heaven forbid,” she said.

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She added nurses are hopeful more PPE supplies will arrive soon, but no one knows when that will be or how much is coming. Gov. Kate Brown had some good news to that effect Tuesday.

“Yesterday, we received a truck delivery of equipment from the federal stockpile, and we expect to receive another today,” she said in her daily press briefing.

Then she added, “…we believe this should amount to about 25% of our requested PPE from the national stockpile.”

The partial shipment mirrors what’s happening on the state and local level.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, which is assisting the Oregon Health Authority in both dispersing PPE and fielding media requests, told KGW the normal request system for these supplies is still in place.

Hospitals make requests through their county health departments, she said, who then forward those requests to the OHA. Officials there use a “priority matrix” to fill orders based on need.

Normally, she said, filling orders completely is no problem, but for weeks now the OHA has only been able to fill them partially. That leaves hospital administrators and staff in the dark as to how much they’ll get and how much they should ration, especially as they brace for an anticipated spike in COVID-19 patients.

National headlines of private companies stepping up to help provides some hope. 

Locally, donations are also offering some relief. The Oregon Dental Association was collecting PPE products from non-emergency health care providers who can’t use them in Salem Tuesday. A representative said they had collected 40,000 masks and 350,000 gloves.

A spokesperson for Multnomah County said the donations and shipments coming in from the state will help, but it’s not nearly enough.

“We've gotten nearly 600 individual donations of  small numbers of masks, hand sanitizers, disinfection wipes at the Multnomah Building alone, for instance,” Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said via email Tuesday. “We expect to receive thousands of masks and other requested items from the state starting today. But we need hundreds of thousands.”

Until then, she said the health department is grateful to those volunteering to make masks at home.

Right now, no plan to utilize that manpower has been put into place, but that could soon change.

“We have a whole donation arm working with community creators, but we're awaiting federal direction on a uniform pattern, supposedly out tomorrow,” Springhetti said.

In the meantime, the Oregon nurse working on the coast will keep her N95 mask in its Rubbermaid container.

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