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Wichita medical professionals speak out on the need for PPE

Coronavirus in Kansas

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Wichita hospitals say their supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) is adequate. But several medical professionals have reached out to KSN saying they don’t have what they need.

One nurse spoke with KSN on the condition of anonymity, saying she feared she’d be fired if she spoke publicly. She works at a Wichita-area hospital and says she’s been using the same mask for three weeks.

“I’m just really scared to talk,” she said.

We reached out to both Wesley Medical Center and Ascension Via Christi to ask about their personal protective equipment, or PPE, supplies. That includes items like N95 respirators, surgical masks, gowns, face shields, goggles, and other protective devices. Both hospitals said they had an adequate supply.

In this illustration dated February 26, 2020, protective N-95 face masks lie on a table at an office in Washington, DC.(Photo by EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images)

“We are asking staff to conserve personal protective equipment by following, but not exceeding, the guidelines for infection prevention,” said Dave Stewart, market director of Public Relations and Communications for Wesley Healthcare, in an emailed response to KSN. 

“Adequate to us is having the correct gear to utilize every time you go in and take care of a patient to protect yourself from any cross-contamination,” said Karen Bally, director of Infection Protection for Ascension Via Christi.

Some frontline workers in Wichita are still concerned for their safety.

“It’s not safe, it’s not safe at all,” said the nurse who didn’t want to be identified. “It’s not safe for the patient. It’s not safe for the staff. It’s not safe for the doctors, everyone who is at risk, re-using these contaminated masks.”

Both hospital groups said they are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The CDC modified its guidelines on reusing supplies like N95 respirators because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Existing CDC guidelines recommend a combination of approaches to conserve supplies while safeguarding healthcare workers in such circumstances,” according to the CDC’s website.

The agency recommends that healthcare facilities “use alternatives to N95 respirators… implement practices allowing extended use and/or limited reuse of N95 respirators, when acceptable; and prioritize the use of N95 respirators for those personnel at the highest risk of contracting or experience complications of infection.”

Statement from Wesley Medical Center, April 2020

“To protect our patients and clinicians, we have expanded our use of masks beyond suspected or positive COVID-19 cases,” said Stewart in an email. “These new guidelines apply to all patient care areas, not just those where suspected or COVID-19 positive patients are being treated. Wesley Healthcare currently has adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, but it is imperative that we remain vigilant in the face of evolving circumstances.”

The email from Stewart outlined how Wesley is using “three types of masks, depending on the clinical role, the type of care the patient is receiving, and the level of suspicion for infection with COVID-19.”

It said N-95 respirators should be used for staff “caring for suspected COVID or COVID-positive patients and are the only masks that should be used during aerosolizing procedures, such as intubation, nebulization, bronchoscopy, or suctioning.”

Ascension Via Christi COVID-19 update to staff, March 28, 2020

A memo to Ascension Via Christi staff dated March 28, 2020, outlines the universal/extended masking policy.

It reads, in part: “Each patient-facing associate will be given one face mask at the beginning of their shift. The mask will be replaced if it damaged or contaminated. These masks are for continued use through a shift and may be worn multiple days in a row by the same associate… The mask may be worn in multiple patient rooms as long as none of the patients are presenting with viral respiratory symptoms. Replace the mask if it is wet, torn or damaged.”

Bally said they put the conservation methods into practice because they want to make sure they have supplies as long as needed.

“Not knowing how long this pandemic will last, we do utilize a lot of resources when we do care for these types of patients,” said Bally.

Personal protection supplies at Ascension Via Christi.
(KSN News, January 29, 2020)

“As CDC guidelines have changed, we all know the situation is very fluid and what we knew yesterday is not necessarily what we know now, today, so we are adapting and changing to the CDC guidelines,” she said.

Joshua Reed, an internal medicine nurse practitioner with FreeState Healthcare, says he’s concerned about the changing standard. He’s worked in several hospitals across Kansas during this pandemic, including Wesley Medical Center and Ascension Via Christi.

“There’s not transparency into why these standards are being changed and what I mean by that is we’ve been told through most of our careers that these are one-time use items,” said Reed. “Everybody, I think, on every level is doing what they can with what’s available and being in a circumstance we thought we’d never be in.”

Reed said he’s never had to reuse personal protective equipment like this before in his career.

“Those masks are removed at the end of a shift, placed in a paper bag with your name on it and then reused the next shift,” said Reed. “So it is out there, it is the reality of the situation. We are horribly short on PPE. We will continue to be short.”

Many healthcare workers KSN spoke to said they are worried about their own protection, but also concerned they might come home and infect family members.

“Everybody is terrified, everybody either has children. They have grandchildren. They have significant others,” said the nurse who didn’t want to be identified.

Both Wesley Medical Center and Ascension Via Christi are accepting donations of medical supplies from individuals and local businesses, including from Textron. While KSN was conducting our interview at Via Christi, a community member came by to drop off masks and medical items for the hospital.

Community member drops off donations of supplies to Ascension Via Christi St. Francis Campus during KSN news interview. (KSN News, April 8, 2020)

Ascension Via Christi has also requested homemade cloth masks to be donated to the hospital. The masks are for patients, visitors and employees whose roles are non-patient facing, so that other masks can be reserved for those medical professionals who are working more directly with patients. Masks can be dropped off at the front entryway of the main entrance at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis between 9 a.m and 3 p.m. weekdays. For more information, call 316-281-5157.

Via Christi is working with its national Ascension partners and medical suppliers, like Medline, on a potential medical recycling system that would reprocess masks so they could be used again.

Bally says the process “has yet to be FDA approved, so at this time within our facility we are collecting those masks and we are sending them off to the company to aide or guide them along with their studies and efforts.”

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