Thursday, May 14, 2020

The right thing: Protect frontline workers -- May 14, 2020 column


It’s the least we can do.

We ask essential workers to fight the war on the novel coronavirus every day, even as the rest of us try to stay out of harm’s way.

The least we can do is give them the proper equipment them to do their work safely -- or as safely as possible under harrowing circumstances.

These heroic workers live with the fear they’ll bring the deadly virus home to their families and themselves, and, sadly, their fears are justified.

While no database records cases of COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, among medical personnel, one small federal study found health care workers – including doctors, nurses, aides and janitors – account for about 20% of known COVID-19 cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study also reported just 27 COVID-related deaths among medical personnel as of April 14, but noted the count was based on a survey of just 16% of all cases. The actual number of deaths is surely far higher.

Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) – masks, plastic shields, gloves and gowns – to essential workers has been spotty at best, with widespread shortages reported. Shortages are being exacerbated by unscrupulous suppliers flooding the United States with counterfeit equipment.

Millions of masks, gloves, gowns and other supplies in use in American hospitals are counterfeit, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The tip-off N95 masks from China were fake, even though they appear to be certified as medical-grade by the U.S. government, was ear loops. Real N95 masks have bands that stretch around the head, not just the ears, to keep the masks in place.

There must be a special place in hell for people who profit by selling shoddy goods that risk lives. For now, the federal government is pursuing the perpetrators.

Operation Stolen Promise, led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, has netted 11 arrests and 519 seizures, AP reported.

“And yet counterfeit goods continue to pour in – not just masks, but also mislabeled medicines, and fake COVID-19 tests and cures,” according to the agency.

This is appalling news, but there are glimmers of hope. Some states seem to be meeting the formidable challenges.

Frontline workers in New York now test positive less often for antibodies to COVID-19 than the general public, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday.

“You know what that means? That means PPE works. Masks work. Gloves work. Hand sanitizing works,” Cuomo said.

“How do health care workers have a lower percentage of infection than the general population? Because people don’t wear these at home, and they don’t take the same precautions. But this works.”

The lower rate is significant because the largest nurses’ union in New York state had to go to court last month and sue the state health department and two hospitals, to force changes in protective procedures.

New York state, the epicenter of infection with nearly 350,000 confirmed cases, has seen significant improvement, enough to warrant reopening parts of the state.

Cuomo issued executive orders last month requiring all people in New York to wear masks or face coverings in public whenever social distancing – keeping six feet away from others -- was impossible, including on public or private transportation. He also ordered nursing home staff be tested for COVID-19 twice a week.

“This is a social exercise,” he said. “I believe in the people, and I believe when they have the right information and they trust the information and they know the information is actually factual as opposed to some type of political jargon, they will do the right thing. And they have.”

Face coverings are sensible, and the White House now requires staffers to wear them, even though President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence refuse.

Virginia recommends, but does not require, face coverings.

Coverings protect other people, not the wearer. If you are infected but asymptomatic and wear a mask or covering over your nose and mouth, you help stop the spread of disease.

“It says to other people, I respect you, I respect your family, I respect the work of our front-line heroes, the nurses . . . I wear this mask to protect you and your family because I respect you,” Cuomo said.

Show some respect? Yes, that’s the least we should do.  

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.