March 24, 2020 / BY ABBY VESOULIS
At the Southeast Florida emergency room where 62-year-old nurse Penny Blake works, hospital administrators put gloves, cleaning supplies, and N-95 masks behind lock and key because people were stealing them.
Twelve hundred miles away, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, N-95 masks, which are only supposed to be worn for up to eight hours, are so scarce that doctors are keeping them in their lockers. “Once you get one, the feeling is you keep it for as long as you can,” said Dr. Michelle Lin.
In more than a dozen interviews with TIME, medical professionals from California to New York painted a picture of scarce resources, growing anxieties, and frustrations with hospital administrators and the government for failing to adequately prepare. Chief among their concerns was the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gowns and eye gear. With more than 43,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States so far, a lack of this gear means they face a high risk of exposure to the virus—which, in turn, means accidentally exposing other patients, their own families, and their colleagues at a time when hospitals cannot afford to have critical personnel on the sidelines.
“The biggest concern we have is that we will not have enough personal protective equipment to take care of the number of patients that are coming in,” says Blake. “And if we can’t protect ourselves, then we’re not going to be able to be there for them.”
Dr. Matthew Baldwin, a critical care physician and pulmonary specialist at New York Presbyterian-Columbia Hospital says he expects the problem to get worse from here. “We’ve had an exponential increase in the number of patients that have come into hospital and have been hospitalized in the last 48 hours,” he told TIME on March 21. “I think there’s genuine concern now, that in the near future, we will run out of personal protective equipment.”