Health

A nationwide shortage of medical supplies has left Kentucky hospitals scrambling for every piece of protective equipment they can find as more than a hundred healthcare workers in Louisville test positive for COVID-19. 

Without an influx of equipment, healthcare workers on the frontlines in cities including Louisville are stretching the masks, gowns and gloves that remain.

“We walk into the hospital. We get our temperatures taken and then we are given a mask that we have to wear for a 12 and a half hour shift,” said one Norton employee who requested to remain anonymous. 

At least 113 healthcare workers in Jefferson County have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday, according to information from the county’s three major hospital systems.

There were 1,008 cases across the state on Monday — meaning about 11 percent of all those who have tested positive in Kentucky are healthcare workers in Jefferson County.

The Kentucky Hospital Association says the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) is the biggest concern for healthcare providers right now, both to protect their workers and patients.

But spokeswoman Ginger Dreyer said several healthcare providers across the state have had supply orders canceled without cause. 

“They’re frustrated right now. So right now they’re focus is finding other ways, other companies they can get their shipment from,” Dreyer said.

Association Board Chair Garren Colvin wrote to Congress after St. Elizabeth Healthcare in northern Kentucky lost four orders of PPE to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the New York Times

A Norton employee shared their experiences with WFPL News to illustrate how the shortage is affecting Louisville’s healthcare providers.

During the initial phase of the outbreak in Louisville, Norton gave every nurse and respiratory therapist an N-95 mask, but it began to dwindle until nurses were given a single mask to last for an entire shift, according to the employee.  

“We don’t get N-95’s anymore,” the employee said. “Now, basically we’re out of N-95 masks, so nurses are now given one surgical mask.”

To protect their families, many workers change their clothes before heading home to their kids. Others are leaving their children with relations who don’t work in healthcare.

“I haven’t seen anyone outside of work in a month,” the worker said. 

With supplies spread thin, hospitals are left making difficult decisions. Jefferson County hospitals say they’re doing everything they can to try and keep workers safe while conserving supplies.

Each hospital system has its own policies for managing equipment. Baptist Healthcare, for example, has assigned a clinician at each facility to oversee its inventory of PPE, said spokeswoman Diane Staton. 

At Norton Healthcare, that means using “the right mask for the right task,” said spokeswoman Lynne Choate. 

And all three systems, Norton, Baptist and University of Louisville Health, say they are following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conserve and reuse equipment when they can.

“In accordance with CDC guidelines, we have developed policies and procedures to extend the use of surgical and N-95 masks,” Choate said of Norton. 

Choate said Norton has had orders delayed, but not cancelled as other hospitals have seen. 

Meanwhile at daily press briefings, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear stresses that the state is also doing everything it can to procure more equipment. 

But on Saturday, Beshear said the federal government has stepped in and purchased “just about every single order” of medical protective gear that was destined for state hospitals. 

He says Kentucky is receiving less equipment in part because the Commonwealth has seen fewer confirmed cases than hotspots around the country. 

“One of the reasons that more isn’t coming to Kentucky is that we are doing a better job of flattening the curve,” Beshear said at a Tuesday night briefing. 

Kentucky may not be a hot-spot like New York or Chicago, but without the proper equipment, healthcare providers are facing the same risks.

“Just because our covid positive counts are lower doesn’t mean we are using less PPE,” the Norton worker said. 

Clarification: According to Lynne Choate, public relations manager at Norton Healthcare, ‘Employees can/should/are given the opportunity to change out their surgical masks if it is soiled at any point during their shift. And N-95 masks were not given to all RTs and nurses during the initial phase of the outbreak. We gave/continue to give N-95 masks out for aerosolized procedures.’

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.