As one million masks go missing, Vermont nurses are reusing N95s, concerned about supply

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Vermont nurses are worried they won’t have enough masks to protect themselves and their families as they care for a surge of patients stricken by COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

On Monday, the nurses’ union asked Gov. Phil Scott to take a series of steps to get ready for that surge, which is expected in the next few weeks, according to Ben Truman, spokesman for the Vermont Department of Health.

The nurses’ union asked Scott to:

  • Expand state funding for the purchase of personal protective equipment.
  • Direct all Vermont businesses who have a supply of PPE to turn over their inventory to the Vermont Emergency Management Office for distribution to health care facilities in need.
  • Direct all Vermont businesses who have manufacturing capabilities to convert or expand their abilities to produce PPE.
  • Issue guidance for manufacturing based on the highest level of protection for patients and staff.
  • Be transparent on PPE supply levels in the state’s inventory, along with supply levels and usage across each health care facility in Vermont.

“As we brace ourselves for the upcoming peak of COVID-19 cases, this request is urgent and frontline workers expect a swift response from our political leadership,” the nurses’ news release stated.

Symptoms of COVID-19, which first surfaced in China at the end of 2019, can include fever, cough and breathing trouble. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.

Deb Snell, president of the nurses’ union, said Tuesday the union had not received a response from the governor’s office, but was continuing to reach out.

“It’s hard getting anybody to respond,” Snell said. 

A million masks evaporate

Mike Schirling, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, said during a press conference on Monday, when asked about the nurses’ concern, that the state had ordered 3.7 million face masks in conjunction with the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Schirling said an order for a million of those masks “evaporated,” bringing the number down to 2.7 million, The missing million masks were part of a multi-state order being managed by Connecticut, Schirling said later in an email, and he didn’t know why the order wasn’t fulfilled. 

“We’re going to come up with a methodology to update those numbers on an ongoing basis, but again we’re buying as much PPE as we can source effectively on a day-to-day basis,” Schirling said at the press conference.

In an interview with the Burlington Free Press, Schirling said the state is already taking most of the steps the nurses are asking for, with the exception of directing manufacturers to produce personal protective equipment for health care workers. He said Vermont companies with the ability to produce such equipment are already doing so voluntarily.

In a news release Monday, the Department of Public Safety said the state has spent more than $20 million since April 4 on personal protective equipment, ventilators and sterilization equipment.

Schirling said based on the current rate of usage, the state has about a two-month supply of personal protective equipment, if Vermonters continue to comply with Scott’s order to stay home and avoid contact with others.

“That could change quickly if people stop complying,” Schirling said.

Reusable masks?

Deb Snell said she’s having a hard time reconciling what seems like relatively good news from the state regarding the supply of masks with her experience on the ground as she cares for COVID-19 patients in the medical intensive care unit at UVM Medical Center.

She is being asked, she said, to re-use her N95 mask as she takes care of extremely sick patients in her unit.

“I would love not to have to re-wear the N95 mask,” Snell said.

Dr. Stephen Leffler, president and chief operating officer at UVM Medical Center, told the Free Press in an interview last week that everyone is putting their N95 masks into brown paper bags and storing them until a team formed by the hospital has come up with a “sure method” of sterilizing them.

Snell also expressed concern that some hospital workers are not wearing masks.

“We’ve addressed this with the hospital, who should be wearing what, and when the general consensus is everyone in public is wearing a mask, should everyone in the hospital wear one?” Snell said. “We have the ability to be vectors here. I would love to make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep staff safe.”

Al Gobeille, executive vice president for operations for the University of Vermont Health Network, said Tuesday the hospital is changing its policy to require everyone to wear masks “as of this morning.”

Gobeille said the change is in response to recent guidelines from Vermont Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that everyone wear cloth masks in public.

Snell confirmed the new policy was communicated to hospital staff on Tuesday afternoon.

‘I am worried’

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Gobeille said each of the six hospitals in the UVM Health Network in Vermont and upstate New York ordered their own personal protective equipment from a company called Medline Industries in Northfield, Illinois.

“We get a set price and quality levels,” Gobeille said.

About two weeks ago, Medline lost its ability to ship the levels of personal protective equipment the Network needs, Gobeille said.

In response, Gobeille last week told all the Network affiliates, which includes Home Health & Hospice in Colchester and a medical group of doctors, in addition to the six hospitals, that the Network’s warehouse in Williston would be their “supplier of last resort.”

In the meantime, Gobeille said the Network affiliates would continue to place their own orders and hope to get them filled.

Gobeille estimated that before the change in policy on masks prompted by Levine and the CDC, the Network had about a 60-day supply on everything. But with the increased “burn rate” in masks that comes with the new policy of requiring masks for everyone, Gobeille said the Network will come under additional pressure.

“We’re working really hard to figure out how to get cloth masks so we don’t have to use our procedural masks,” Gobeille said. “We have a couple of companies willing to make them.”

Gobeille said he and his team are now working with four or five companies to buy masks, some of which deal directly with China.

“I am worried,” Gobeille said. “This is what keeps our people safe and healthy, and we cannot run out.”

Contact Dan D’Ambrosio at 660-1841 or ddambrosio@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanDambrosioVT. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription. 

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