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PPE conservation and protecting health care workers from COVID-19

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For most of us, staying out of the way of the coronavirus is simply a matter of following the now familiar regimen of cleaning our hands frequently, staying at home, and covering our faces when we venture into public for essentials. We can ride it out with our families binging on movies, connecting with distant friends via Zoom, and fashioning creative face masks—essentially hanging out in relative comfort.

But things aren’t as cozy for the myriad healthcare workers worldwide who continue to risk their health and lives around the clock to protect the rest of us and make our communities safe. They face two serious threats: critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and immediate and danger to their own health.

Conserving PPE

We are not used to seeing conservation efforts focused around a particular product line. But these are far from ordinary times and similar to the panic-driven toilet paper buying spree, personal protective equipment is also empty from shelves and virtually impossible to find in many parts of the world. In fact, dire shortages of personal protective equipment forces hospital workers to wear the same surgical mask for work shifts extending a minimum of 12 hours and often much longer. N95 respirators intended to be discarded immediately after each patient visit are often being used repeatedly for a week. While frantic efforts to manufacture more equipment are underway, once they are produced they must be allocated, used properly, and cared for according to strict protocol.

Instead of a rush to manufacture and deliver millions of masks, respirators, gowns, and gloves, workers and governing agencies must identify a reliable method of conserving what they have. Current shortages have created a tremendous stress load on the medical industry and workers we count on the most, and alternative treatment approaches have become commonplace as a result. The CDC has contingency plans in place but the current unprecedented shortage demands crisis intervention as well.

Protecting health care workers

As we have seen with social distancing in the general public, separation of space is highly effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus and other infectious diseases. The same approach should be employed in medical facilities to allow health care workers the same protection.

Spatial separation is one of the medical industry’s oldest and most respected ideals. Simply defined as limited movement in a designated space, this idea keeps sick patients away from healthy workers. The COVID pandemic has been so severe that patients typically moved to an isolated area have nowhere to go in overcrowded hospitals, thus exposing potentially hundreds of medical workers from nurses to surgeons to orderlies.

Logistical challenges have been overwhelming but one step forward mimics stay-at-home orders: staff health care workers based on assignment. A nurse, for example, typically frequents many areas throughout a facility, potentially carrying a virus with every step, and essentially making pandemic matters worse. Instead, hospitals should have staff working in designated spaces with a defined physical space. PPE can also be used throughout a shift in that area instead of putting on new equipment when meeting every single patient.

While we may be close to a turning point in this crisis, staying smart and proactive is the best strategy.

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