In one of the most vivid scenes in the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” (among many vivid scenes), soldiers dressed in leather smocks ran out into radioactive areas to literally shovel radioactive material out of harm’s way. Horrifically under-protected, they suited up anyway. In another scene, soldiers fashioned genital protection from scrap metal out of desperation while being sent to other hazardous areas.
Please don’t tell me that in the richest country in the world in the 21st century, I’m supposed to work in a fictionalized Soviet-era disaster zone and fashion my own face mask out of cloth because other Americans hoard supplies for personal use and so-called leaders sit around in meetings hearing themselves talk. I ran to a bedside the other day to intubate a crashing, likely COVID, patient. Two respiratory therapists and two nurses were already at the bedside. That’s five N95s masks, five gowns, five face shields and 10 gloves for one patient at one time. I saw probably 15 to 20 patients that shift. If we are going to start rationing supplies, what percentage should I wear precautions for?
Make no mistake, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is loosening these guidelines because our country is not prepared. Loosening guidelines increases health-care workers’ risk, but the decision is done to allow us to keep working, not to keep us safe. It is done for the public benefit — so I can continue to work no matter the personal cost to me or my family (and my health-care family). Sending health-care workers to the front line asking them to cover their face with a bandana is akin to sending a soldier to the front line in a T-shirt and flip flops.
I don’t want talk. I don’t want assurances. I want action. I want boxes of N95s piling up, donated from the people who hoarded them. I want non-clinical administrators in the hospital lining up in the ER asking if they can stock shelves to make sure that when I need to rush into a room, the drawer of PPE (personal protective equipment) equipment I open isn’t empty. I want them showing up in the ER asking “How can I help?” instead of offering shallow “plans” conceived by someone who has spent far too long in an ivory tower and not long enough in the trenches. Maybe they should actually step foot in the trenches.
I want billion-dollar companies like 3M halting all production of any product that isn’t PPE to focus on PPE manufacturing. I want a company like Amazon, with its logistics mastery (it can drop a package to your door less than 24 hours after ordering it), halting its two-day delivery of 12 reams of toilet paper to whoever is willing to pay the most in order to help get the available PPE supply distributed fast and efficiently in a manner that gets the necessary materials to my brothers and sisters in arms who need them.
I want Proctor &Gamble, and the makers of other soaps and detergents, stepping up, too. We need detergent to clean scrubs, hospital linens and gowns. We need disinfecting wipes to clean desk and computer surfaces. What about plastics manufacturers? Plastic gowns aren’t some high-tech device, they are long shirts/smocks made out of plastic. Get on it. Face shields are just clear plastic. Nitrile gloves? Yeah, they are pretty much just gloves, made from something that isn’t apparently Latex. Let’s go. Money talks in this country. Executive millionaires, why don’t you spend a few bucks to buy back some of these masks from the hoarders and drop them off at the nearest hospital.
I love biotechnology and research, but we need to divert viral culture media for COVID testing and research. We need biotechnology manufacturing ready and able to ramp up if and when treatments or vaccines are developed. Our Botox supply isn’t critical, but our antibiotic supply is. We need to be able to make more plastic ET tubes, not more silicon breast implants.
Let’s see all that. Then we can all talk about how we played our part in this fight. Netflix and chill is not enough while my family, friends and colleagues are out there fighting. Our country won two world wars because the entire country mobilized. We out-produced and we out-manufactured while our soldiers out-fought the enemy. We need to do that again because, make no mistake, we are at war, health-care workers are your soldiers, and the war has just begun.
Josh Lerner, M.D., works at the Leominster campus of UMass Memorial HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital.