I’m not gonna lie. It’s scary as hell to be a doctor right now. In Italy, which is our projected immediate future, up to 10 percent of infected people are health care workers. Health care workers are also more likely to experience severe and critical diseases. There’s not a great explanation for why this is, other than just higher risk from repeated exposure over and over to infected persons. When we go to evaluate a patient, we can’t even be sure when we enter a room of who is infected, due to 5 percent of cases being asymptomatic carriers and the failure of our testing systems in the U.S. to actually diagnose people with the infection. So every time we see a patient, it is basically Russian Roulette as to getting exposed to the virus.
I’m not as scared for myself individually, more for all of us health care workers as a whole. So many of us have given our entire lives to medicine; trust us, we have the loans and emotional scars to prove it. It feels scary to know that just doing our jobs during this pandemic could ultimately lead to our demise. Yes, we run that risk every day, as common infections like the flu can still kill you, but those risks are so much greater when facing a novel virus as we have never seen before in our lifetimes.
The biggest challenge facing your health care workers is the lack of PPE, personal protective equipment. The hard truth is that we still don’t understand how much of this virus is transmitted in the air versus in droplet form. Droplet spread infections, like influenza A and B, can be successfully contained with just regular surgical masks, while airborne infections like H1N1 (swine flu) require specialized masks or hoods.
We do know that reports show that workers in other countries such as China and Italy are more likely to become ill as access to protective equipment dwindles, and supplies are exhausted. The bottom line is: Until we have a full understanding of how the virus is transmitted, it is safer for all health care workers who will have close contact with patients to wear N95 masks.
Well, here’s the problem, there is a critical shortage of this and other equipment which we need to protect us. Many communities are even soliciting donations of N95 masks from private companies, as they are often used in construction work.
We need all the help we can get. Without the support and cooperation of the general public, we will not be successful in mitigating the spread of this virus and the ensuing deaths. So please, don’t stockpile masks. If your doctor or nurse becomes sick, who will be left to take care of you when you need it? In countries further along into this infection, anyone with a medical license is being pulled to the frontlines to help combat the shortfall of physicians. That means your psychiatrist, who is extremely well educated and trained in psychiatry, may end up being your general hospital doctor if enough of our current staff become sick and unable to work.
So help us help you. Leave the masks and medical supplies to the professionals that need them. If you own or know of a construction company or other business with access to N95 masks, please reach out to your local hospital to see if you can donate them. This pandemic is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and we need to be prepared now and for the future. Please share this message in your local communities to encourage the donation of N95 masks.
Jenny Hartsock is a hospitalist who blogs at Doctor of a Certain Size.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com
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