SALEM — Confronted with a lack of protective equipment, health care workers treating coronavirus patients are reusing masks that are supposed to be used once and then discarded and are even making their own — and more are getting infected.
Twelve staffers at Oregon Health and Science University have tested positive for COVID-19, said Danny Jacobs, the president of OHSU — one of the state's leading hospitals, on Monday. How many more in other facilities in the state might also be infected is unclear.
Three more people in Oregon — men aged 80 and two 91-year-olds — have died from the virus, with the known state death toll at 16, the Oregon Health Authority reported Monday. The total of known coronavirus cases is 606.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in several weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Casey Parr, a respiratory therapist at OHSU, told reporters in a video conference call with Jacobs and others that he wears the same mask for entire 12-hour shifts. He is a father of an infant who's only a little over 2 months old.
"I'm 35 years old," Parr said. "For the first time in my life, I've considered whether or not I need to write a will."
Irene Hunt, an in-home health care worker from Springfield, Oregon, says she hasn't had a real protective mask since the pandemic began. In the video conference call organized by a labor union, she showed reporters a blue homemade cloth mask she has been using. She works with the elderly who cannot care for themselves and who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-1.
"Home-care providers are front line health care workers and we have no equipment to protect ourselves," Hunt said.
Her eyes filled with tears as she described not seeing her daughter for days because she is afraid she might get the virus and unknowingly pass it on to her youngster, who is being cared for by Hunt's 70-year-old mother in law.
In Salem, local residents assembled some 2,000 masks from kits handed out last week and returned them at a parking lot Monday to Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics, said hospital spokesman Michael Gay.
"We're pretty excited," Gay said. The public snapped up supplies to make nearly 10,000 masks last Thursday. Dropoffs of additional assembled masks are scheduled for three more days this week.
Meanwhile, health care workers have been using masks that should be tossed after each use for entire shifts, raising the possibility that infections could be carried to patient to patient.
"We are currently working 12-hour shifts and we are asked to only use one surgical mask per shift," said Alicia Holihan, a nurse at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, in Springfield, Oregon. "Last week we were just approved to use cloth mask and that is not acceptable. We need this essential equipment to be able to handle the surge and anticipate all the people that are going to be coming in."
After being used for an entire shift, some nurses and other hospital employees have been storing their mask in a paper bag or rubber container for 72 hours, to ensure that if the coronavirus got onto it it will die off, before using the mask again.
"We're seeing safety standards and supplies drop across the state and everyone is scrambling," said Kevin Mealy, spokesman for the Oregon Nurses Association.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has asked the Trump administration for more protective gear but has been provided with less than half of what is needed.
"It is absolutely unacceptable," Brown told reporters on the call. "We need the federal government to step up."