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Oregon health care workers falling ill amid lack of protections

Twelve OHSU staffers test positive: 'We have no equipment to protect ourselves'

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Confronted with a lack of protective equipment, Oregon health care workers treating coronavirus patients are reusing masks that are supposed to be used once and then discarded and are even making their own — and more are getting infected.

Twelve staffers at Oregon Health and Science University have tested positive for COVID-19, said Danny Jacobs, the president of OHSU — one of the state’s leading hospitals, on Monday. How many more in other facilities in the state might also be infected is unclear.

Three more people in Oregon — men aged 80 and two 91-year-olds — have died from the virus, with the known state death toll at 16, the Oregon Health Authority reported Monday. The total of known Oregon coronavirus cases is 606.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in several weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Casey Parr, a respiratory therapist at OHSU, told reporters in a video conference call with Jacobs and others that he wears the same mask for entire 12-hour shifts. He is a father of an infant who’s only a little over 2 months old.

“I’m 35 years old,” Parr said. “For the first time in my life, I’ve considered whether or not I need to write a will.”

Irene Hunt, an in-home health care worker from Springfield, says she hasn’t had a real protective mask since the pandemic began. In the video conference call, organized by a labor union, she showed reporters a blue homemade cloth mask she has been using. She works with the elderly who cannot care for themselves and who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-1.

“Home-care providers are front-line health care workers, and we have no equipment to protect ourselves,” Hunt said.

Her eyes filled with tears as she described not seeing her daughter for days because she is afraid she might get the virus and unknowingly pass it on to her youngster, who is being cared for by Hunt’s 70-year-old mother in law.

Head of the Oregon Nurses Association Sara Laslett said emergency-room nurses in Portland are wearing swim goggles because there are no more face shields.

"On the coast, they are storing their dirty masks in paper bags and rubber-made containers to reuse again," Laslett said. "And in Central Oregon right now, some of our nurses have been wearing the same N95 mask for three weeks straight."

In Salem, local residents assembled some 2,000 masks from kits handed out last week and returned them at a parking lot Monday to Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics, said hospital spokesman Michael Gay.

“We’re pretty excited,” Gay said. The public snapped up supplies to make nearly 10,000 masks last Thursday. Dropoffs of additional assembled masks are scheduled for three more days this week.

Meanwhile, health care workers have been using masks that should be tossed after each use for entire shifts, raising the possibility that infections could be carried to patient to patient.

“We are currently working 12-hour shifts and we are asked to only use one surgical mask per shift,” said Alicia Holihan, a nurse at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, in Springfield. “Last week we were just approved to use cloth mask and that is not acceptable. We need this essential equipment to be able to handle the surge and anticipate all the people that are going to be coming in.”

Alicia Holihan is an emergency department technician in Springfield and SEIU Local 49 member. She said workers are being asked to wear a single surgical mask for 12-hour shifts. And she said hospital workers were approved to wear cloth masks last week.

"That is not acceptable," Holihan said. "As we see, we need this essential equipment to be able to handle the surge and anticipate all the people that are going to be coming in."

Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici said members of Congress are pushing the White House to release more masks for essential workers in Oregon.

"There's no reason why any piece of PPE should be sitting in a closet or a stockpile right now," Bonamici said. "It needs to get on the hands and faces and bodies of people who are saving lives."

Gov. Kate Brown is also calling on the federal government to release more personal protective equipment from the strategic national stockpile.

Eric Tegethoff of the Oregon News Service contributed to this story

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus

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