Medical Professionals Talk to PEOPLE About Putting Their Lives at Risk: ‘We’re Scared’

Julie Mazziotta
Medical Professionals Talk to PEOPLE About Putting Their Lives at Risk: ‘We’re Scared’

Each week, Kellie Gross, a nurse in New York, the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the country, gets one new N95 face mask. They’re meant to be used once and then thrown away, but that one mask — made of a flexible fiber and fitted with a small filter valve — has to last her for a full week of three to four 12-hour shifts.

“Once an N95 mask is saturated, then you’re supposed to get a new one,” Gross tells PEOPLE. “By the end of my 12-hour shifts, my N95 mask is unusable. It’s wet. I’m crying a lot. It’s hard to be with these patients and see the fear in their eyes while they’re being intubated and not have an emotion about it.”

Gross is one of the thousands of health care providers across the country forced to care for COVID-19 patients with insufficient protection due to massive shortages of PPEs, or personal protective equipment. As they treat COVID-19 patients, medical workers are at an extremely high risk of contracting the highly contagious virus, which can transmit through air particles. They need a range of PPEs — gowns; two types of masks, both N95 and surgical; gloves and goggles — to avoid getting sick, but workers are frustrated with hospital administrators and the government, whom they say left them unprepared.

“The government does not have this in control,” Leela Sirotkin, an emergency medicine doctor working at Southlake Hospital in Clermont, Florida, tells PEOPLE. “How did we mess this up so badly?”

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Gross says that at her hospital, Northwell Health Long Island Jewish Medical Center, located just outside of New York City, she believes the administrators are limiting the amount of N95 masks that the medical staff can have out of concerns that the hospital’s small stockpile will soon run out.

“We just don’t know how long this is going to be and we are going to need those masks,” she says. “I don’t feel that my hospital wants us to get sick, but we don’t know what the next month, two months, are going to bring, so they’re trying to preserve what we have.”

While Gross understands that concern, she says that staff needs those masks now, with the hospital “overfilled” with COVID-19 patients and a growing number of health care workers contracting, and dying from the virus.

“I think they’re seeing already, that staff members in the beginning they were being way too stringent in keeping materials away from us. And we have so many staff members that are out sick, now I think they need to step up and give our staff what we need,” she says. “I personally am scared to ask for another one.”

And as a mom who comes home to three kids, aged 5, 2 and 9 months, after her shifts, she wants “to make sure” that she and her coworkers are all protected.

“We’re scared, and our patients are so, so scared,” Gross says.

Down in Florida, Sirotkin said that the state feels like it’s in a “ramping up phase” as they wait for the number of cases to rise like they did in New York.

“I feel like we’re staring at this slow-moving hurricane that we’ve already seen hitting and battering other places and we know it’s coming. We’ve seen the devastation and death, and we know we can’t stop it,” she says.

To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.

Getty Nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in New York protest the lack of PPEs

Sirotkin feels comfortable with the number of PPEs her hospital has now, and she was recently fitted for a reusable mask, but she “fears” running out of equipment and medications.

“We have it now, but by the time the storm hits, what if it’s gone?” she says. “If we’re one of the later spots for cases to grow and people don’t stay home and flatten the curve, will there be anything left?”

An internal watchdog report from the Department of Health and Human Services, released Monday, confirmed reports in the media from medical workers that hospitals are experiencing “severe” and “widespread” shortages of equipment. President Donald Trump, in response, questioned the report and said that hospitals have been “thrilled” with the current situation, NBC News reported.

Gross says that in New York, which saw its largest one-day increase in deaths on Tuesday, they keep “hoping that it will peak.”

“We keep saying, this is crazy. But I feel like I’m getting to a point where it’s not crazy anymore. This is our new reality, and it’s a hard thing to swallow,” she says.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.