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Houston Hospitals Prepare For Face Mask Shortage As COVID-19 Spreads Across Region

It’s mostly smaller healthcare facilities that are short on PPE, Houston nurse says.

A medical professional registers a patient before getting a sample for testing at a newly opened free drive through Covid-19 testing site operated by United Memorial Medical Center on April 2.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
A medical professional registers a patient before getting a sample for testing at a newly opened free drive through Covid-19 testing site operated by United Memorial Medical Center on April 2.


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As Houston deals with an ever-growing number of coronavirus cases, healthcare professionals are dealing with limited resources, including a lack of masks and other protective equipment they need.

The Harris County region, which has the most number of cases in the state, is hit especially hard, as medical professionals focus on trying to stock up on dwindling supplies.

And it's mostly smaller health care facilities that face a shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, according to Michelle Solomon, an oncology nurse and member of the advocacy group Texas Nurses Association.

“There is requests going from nurse to nurse, ‘who has this, who has what, can we share different things?’" Solomon said.

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"With there being supplies already back-ordered and only certain clinics getting allotment, of course the bigger institutions, they're going to go to them first," Solomon said. "And then there's like a trickle-down to other clinics, hospitals and stuff like that."

Some of Houston's large hospital systems say they're stocked up on masks and other PPE, but are concerned about a future shortage, depending how long the pandemic continues to develop.

Some are forced to re-use masks, said Bryan McLeod with Harris Health System, which manages Ben Taub and LBJ hospitals.

"In the prior practices, you may have used it once and discarded it," McLeod said. "But we're trying to conserve what we have just to make sure that we have what we need going forward."

That's true for many hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, said Jim McDeavitt, dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

"As of right now, that's not because there's a critical shortage," he said. "It's more looking ahead of the surge that might come to try to maintain supplies in advance of a crisis."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that people wear cloth face coverings in public places like grocery stores. It maintains that surgical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers.

McDeavitt worries that the shortage will get worse as more Americans are considering wearing masks.

"I think the last thing we need is 4 million people running around trying to procure surgical masks," he said. "We need them in healthcare facilities, not in people's homes."

At Houston Methodist, things seem to be a little better.

Firas Zabaneh, director of system infection prevention and control there, said the hospital started preparing for the coronavirus since it began spreading in Asia.

"So since the beginning of January, we've been kind of acquiring as much inventory as we can to make sure that we are taking care of our frontline healthcare providers," he said.

Zabaneh said while they are not having to re-use PPE yet, they are keeping used surgical and N95 masks in case things get worse.

The same applies for Texas Children's Hospital, according to Bert Gumeringer, senior vice president of facilities operations at TCH.

"We have taken the necessary steps to look at parallel disinfection methods," he said.

The hospitals say they are doing what they can to protect their healthcare workers. Baylor has started requiring all clinical and non-clinical staff to wear surgical masks. At Texas Children’s, wearing masks is optional for clinical staff in areas other than where they have always been required, such as in operating rooms or patient isolation areas. But they are not keeping healthcare workers from wearing masks if they are available.

St. Joseph Medical Center didn't agree to an interview, but in an email, spokeswoman Tracie Gibbs said they are "able to equip our staff with the materials they need to safely care for our patients."

But Solomon, with the Texas Nurses Association, said steps like sanitizing and re-using masks are not 100% effective.

"Before, we would have been written up and gotten in trouble for doing that," she said. "Unfortunately, with the way things are going on right now, it might be the only option we have, so I guess if you're comparing, it's better than nothing but it's also not very good."