In the trenches of a pandemic, frontline medical workers ask lawmakers for reinforcements, more supplies

By: - April 2, 2020 3:31 pm
N95 masks, gloves, gowns and caps are a top concern among front-line medical workers. (Image: Adobe Stock)

Front-line medical workers in North Carolina need more personal protective equipment, work flexibility and reinforcements from new and returning nurses and doctors  as COVID-19 numbers climb.

“[Nurses and hospital workers] certainly consider themselves to be your front-line soldiers in this effort,” Tina Gordon, CEO of the North Carolina Nurses Association, told the legislative Health Care work group, a subcommittee of the House Select Committee on COVID-19. “But they don’t feel like they have the protection and the ammunition that they need to take on this virus as well as they want to.”

There were 1,900 known infections across 83 of the state’s 100 counties as of Thursday morning, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Seventeen people are known to have died of the disease; 184 people are currently hospitalized. 

More than 28,000 tests have been performed in North Carolina, and to fully understand the scope of the pandemic here, that number should rise significantly in the next few weeks, Gordon said.

As the numbers increase, public health officials warn that a peak, projected for middle to late April, could strain available hospital resources and jeopardize the health of doctors and nurses as they treat thousands of new cases.

Personal protective equipment like N95 masks, gloves, gowns and caps are a top concern among front-line medical workers, Gordon said. The national reserve is depleted and while most hospitals in the state still have some on hand, the increasing demand is creating a lot of anxiety over a dwindling supply.

Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) asked why personal protective equipment is such a concern, given the number of companies such as Hanes Brands have said they will help provide or manufacture it.

“Is it like toilet paper?” Lambeth said. “We’re producing all these things and they’re going somewhere. I’m having a hard time understanding where and how we’re so short if all these vendors are stepping up and providing supplies.”

Public Health Director Dr. Gibbie Harris

Dr. Gibbie Harris, public health director for Mecklenburg County, explained her county alone has performed more than 10,000 tests in the last few weeks just through hospitals.

“We’ve been burning through PPE,” Harris said.

“We’ve got a number of hospitals in the county that are seeing COVID patients in the hospital,” Harris said. “We’re using PPE in the appropriately at this point — we haven’t started rationing yet … but if we talk about needing to set up a mass care site outside of the hospital system, because their walls are only so big, what we’re looking at with our numbers right now…we have to have the resources to do that before we do it. We can’t wait until we open a mass care site and say, ‘Oh yes, we need some equipment for that.’”

Harris teared up, her voice breaking, as she gave a presentation to the work group about her own county, which has  reported more than 300 cases in the last three weeks — and how bad the situation could get there.

“I will be the first person that stands up and says, ‘I am very happy that I was wrong, that we didn’t need all of this and our people are not getting as sick as we thought they were going to be,’” Harris said. “I’d much rather be prepared than not.”


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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.