Some rural hospitals in the Northwest are struggling to stockpile enough personal protective equipment for employees who care for contagious patients. Those employees say sometimes it means they use that equipment for longer than the recommended period.
One Spokane nurse says, because of that, he’s giving up his vocation until he can feel safe again at the workplace.
Aric Frank has been a registered nurse for 20 years, the last 10 as a travel nurse. He’s employed by an agency that sends him to work in emergency rooms in rural critical care hospitals.
Frank says, hospital-to-hospital, Covid protocols differ. At some facilities, he says, the protocols for protecting non-Covid patients from exposure to the virus are lacking. At those places, he worries that nurses who care for Covid patients risk transmitting the virus to patients who don’t have it.
“If you talk to the people in Davenport about their procedure for Covid patients, and cross-contamination, they'll tell you if you care for a Covid patient, you're done for the day. So you only care for a Covid patient. And in Brewster, you go from room to room to room, regardless," Frank said.
It should be said that Okanogan County and Brewster have been hit much harder by Covid than has Davenport. As of August 18, Okanogan County reported 930 confirmed cases to 31 for Lincoln County. And the Brewster area alone has had 543 cases and six of Okanogan County’s nine Covid-related fatalities.
Frank worries that, in some hospitals, caregivers don’t have consistent access to quality protective equipment. In recent weeks, he says he has worn sub-standard protective masks with straps that broke at critical times. And he’s worn masks he believes were not approved by the federal occupational and health safety agency.
“I think these facilities are so desperate for gear, PPE, right now, that anything will do, and that's not the case," he said.
He says, one day while working at Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, no protective masks were available while he treated a patient in an emergency room. He says, in that case, doctors and nurses had about 15 minutes to prepare for a patient's arrival, but the nurse who was supervising him that day was unable to locate any N95 masks until the emergency was over.
Three Rivers spokeswoman Jennifer Best says she believes there is no shortage of PPE at her hospital. She’s uncertain why it may have taken so long to locate masks when they were needed.
“All I can tell you is everyone who works for the hospital knows where the PPE room is. They know where to find the supplies they need. And we will continue to provide that protective equipment fort our staff and providers," Best said.
Best acknowledges small hospitals have limited resources. She says hers follows CDC guidelines to try to prevent cross contamination, including having staff wash their hands before moving to new patients.
Okanogan County Health Officer Dr John McCarthy says small hospitals, like Three Rivers, are doing the best they can.
“We'd love to have ICUs and separate rooms available for everybody who comes to every hospital, but it's just not realistic, and so appreciating there is a difference between the larger hospitals and the smaller hospitals, as long as somebody is following the CDC recommendations, I think you're in good shape," McCarthy said.
But Aric Frank isn’t sold. For now, he’s stepping back from taking new assignments.
“I can't wait to go back to being an ER nurse, but until I'm guaranteed the safety gear I require to do my job and minimize my risk, I need to step back from the career I love," he said.