CORONAVIRUS

Eastern Iowa hospitals are 'very concerned' about supply of face masks, other protective gear

Officials emphasize social distancing important now more than ever

A cart containing supplies for medical workers is seen in the temporary COVID-19 testing facility outside the emergency
A cart containing supplies for medical workers is seen in the temporary COVID-19 testing facility outside the emergency entrance at Mercy Iowa City in Iowa City on Wednesday. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Concerns over the availability of face masks and other protective gear continue to grow as the number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases have doubled in the state over the weekend, leaving local hospitals to put a call out for donations and to seek alternative supply chains for supplies.

And it’s because of this potential shortage, public health officials note, that it is critical Iowans heed warnings to practice social distancing and to postpone non-urgent medical care if possible.

Suresh Gunasekaran, University of Iowa Health Care’s chief executive officer, said Monday he is “very concerned” about whether the UI Hospitals and Clinics, the state’s largest hospital, has enough masks, gloves and other equipment to keep staff safe from the spread of COVID-19.

“The situation keeps changing, how much we’re using keeps changing, how much we’re able to get keeps changing,” he said in a phone interview. “You won’t find it surprising to say that we continue to be worried about PPE,” or personal protective equipment.

At this time, officials from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City hospitals say they have enough personal protective equipment and ventilators on hand to care for any critical patient diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.

However, if area hospitals see a sudden surge in the number of patients admitted with COVID-19 in a short amount of time, they could burn through the supply quickly and overwhelm the system.

In the event of a patient surge, Mercy Medical Center’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Myers said the Cedar Rapids hospital would need three times as many supplies as those currently on hand. He estimated that, without an additional inflow of supplies, the hospital would be out “in a week or two.”

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“From a PPE perspective, no matter how much any organization has, it’s never enough,” Mercy Iowa City CEO Sean Williams said on Monday. “We’re always trying to find more either right now or access to more when and if the surge hits.”

So far, four individuals have been hospitalized in Johnson County but have been discharged since, Johnson County Public Health Director Dave Koch said.

Linn County Public Health has not reported any hospitalizations among the COVID-19 positive cases.

Across the country, hospitals, long-term care facilities and other medical providers are running out of face masks and other protective gear needed by health care workers to safely treat patients with COVID-19.

As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance stating workers can extend the use of face masks by wearing the same one for multiple patient visits. It has even stated that, if none are available, health care workers could use homemade masks — such as bandannas or scarves — as a “last resort.”

Ongoing use of personal protective equipment has increased across the United States as cases have spiked in recent days, reaching more than 40,000 infected individuals this week. But the shortage has been compounded by the fact that many face masks are manufactured in China, where the coronavirus was first identified in December.

“The biggest concern is conservation of resources,” Williams said. “If we’re utilizing resources on healthy individuals, when and if that surge materializes, we’re not going to be in as good a position as we might be if we’re able to conserve that supply.”

Koch emphasized those with symptoms, even mild, should stay home to help conserve the supply. Not everyone necessarily needs a test, he said — adding everyone should take the utmost precautions if feeling unwell.

He added, “If you have symptoms, call your health care provider first. They will determine if you need to go to a provider for testing based on your risk assessment.”

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Area hospitals have postponed elective and non-urgent medical procedures to conserve the supply. For every surgery that is postponed, personal protective equipment for at least four health care workers is saved, Dr. Dustin Arnold, chief medical officer for UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospitals, said Friday.

Myers said other measures implemented for the past month — such as discontinuing non-essential personnel and asking staff to use one face mask while caring for multiple patients — has led to a 25 percent decline in personal protective equipment use.

UIHC’s Gunasekaran said the health system expects to receive additional supplies from the state, which has tapped into national stockpiles. But those deliveries haven’t arrived yet. Gov. Kim Reynolds said Sunday Iowa Prison Industries likely will contract with the state to provide some personal protective equipment with inmate labor.

The hospital also has asked for community donations of face shields and other gear.

“All this is really, really beneficial and we couldn’t be more grateful,” Gunasekaran said. “Every piece of this equipment is not only keeping our staff safe, but it’s improving our staff morale.”

Cedar Rapids hospitals as well as Mercy Iowa City have put the call out for donations, and community members have responded by sewing thousands of cloth face masks that can be used in low-risk situations.

But most important, according to local officials, it’s vital residents comply with state and federal public health guidelines and help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 locally. By doing so, it will help “flatten the curve,” or keep the outbreak and levels manageable for local health care systems.

“We urge everyone to make the highest commitment to have absolute minimum, in-person contact with others until notified otherwise,” Koch said. “All of us share a great responsibility to protect our fellow residents, especially the most vulnerable people in our communities.”

Gazette reporter Erin Jordan contributed to this report.

Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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