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On The Front Lines—Hospital Workers Struggle With Lack of Protective Equipment


As covid-19 threatens America’s healthcare system, hospital workers continue to go to work everyday concerned for their own safety. And the shortage of personal protective equipment only makes their jobs harder.


Michael grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, but now works as an ER nurse in a major metropolitan hospital. At his request, we've changed his name and left out some identifying details. 

Before Michael’s hospital had coronavirus protocols fully implemented, he remembers treating one patient in particular.

“I had a patient who we had high suspicion for coronavirus and they were like, you know, talking, they were totally alert and oriented, just kind of chilling in their room and I gave them some medications and went off to see my other three patients before I stopped back.”

But about 45 minutes later, things had changed.

“They were totally unresponsive, like gasping for breath. They wouldn't open their eyes like I couldn't get them their attention whatsoever.”

Micheal’s team needed to intubate immediately.

“The problem is when you intubate somebody, all of their, all those bugs, all those germs, anything that's in their respiratory tract is going to get cast up and out of their throat and into their room. It's a huge, huge exposure risk.”

But this patient’s room didn’t have the resources needed to fully protect the healthcare workers.

“We ended up having like three people gown up and go into their room and stay in there while other people ran resources to them...the whole time. I just remember thinking what a huge infection risk this was and the fact that like a flimsy little paper gown is not going to stop any sort of viral particles... It was just really surreal to me, like understanding that I was in a situation with a highly virulent strain of a new disease and I was not protected.”

That patient ended up faring well, according to Michael. But even as hospitals implement safer protocols and gear up for more coronavirus patients, healthcare workers are at risk.


"(Freund: Do you feel, do you feel safe at your job right now?) No. No. No. I've had several coworkers already test positive.”

In fact, right now Michael has a coworker in the ICU, fighting coronavirus. As the pandemic continues, he’s frustrated with how America has protected its healthcare professionals.

“I don't think that healthcare workers have been treated very fairly whatsoever in this whole situation. Most if not all other countries are wearing more protective equipment than we are. They all have, we like to call them space suits. And we have a gown, a mask that we've probably been using for longer than one day, and a face shield. I mean, that's the real problem with this picture. ”

Even as hospitals execute stricter protocols and work to address shortages of protective equipment, for those on the front lines it remains a daily battle...against an unpredictable and unforgiving enemy. 

“Of course you get told that there are pandemics and there are like emergency response kind of algorithms that a lot of hospitals follow to prevent a huge pandemic from occurring with no sort of fallback. But this has been totally out of proportion to what I think anyone would have expected.”

Katelyn Freund is a nonfiction student at UNCW's MFA Creative Writing program. She holds degrees in Spanish and English. In her time not spent working as WHQR's CoastLine Producer, she enjoys shooting pool, humor writing, and snacking.