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Before the coronavirus pandemic, nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers had no trouble getting their hands on respirator masks and other protective gear when they needed it at the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County.
But near the end of February, as concerns about COVID-19 grew, all that changed.
"N95 masks were something that were readily available," Elizabeth Lalasz, a nurse at the Chicago hospital, told BuzzFeed News. "They were in these drawers, big drawers that you opened up when you went into isolation rooms. They were suddenly gone. All of them."
Shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, hit healthcare workers around the US hard, prompting local leaders to spend millions to make up the shortfall and some hospital administrators to enter into desperate deals. But months later, the shortages are ongoing, and nurses and other healthcare workers across the country have said they're still having to reuse masks, respirators, and other gear that's manufactured to be used only once.
For Lalasz, it's been so hard to count on her hospital having enough masks, foot and head covers, and gowns stocked over the past three months, that she and some of her coworkers have resorted to buying supplies off eBay and bringing them to work.
"Literally, I probably have at least $500 if not close to $1,000 worth of my own PPE," Lalasz said in a phone interview last week. "We don't trust our employers to protect us, so we have to protect ourselves and then share it amongst each other."
Lalasz, who is a steward for the local National Nurses United at Stroger hospital, said the union has been fighting since February to get nurses access to basic gear when treating COVID-19 patients, like N95 masks and shoe covers. The nurses have also pushed back against management for requiring workers to reuse that gear for multiple patients and over the course of several days, she said.
Thousands of healthcare workers have contracted the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and dozens have died.
"It's been an ongoing fight to varying degrees," Lalasz said. "Different things we have been told we don't have access to, we don't need, we've run out of, I mean, the PPE fight is constant."
At first, the N95s were locked up with managers and only given out when asked for, she said. Then, after regaining access to the respirators, nurses were told they had to reuse them for weeks and to tuck them away in a paper bag when they were in between shifts.
"I don't know how you can put a mask ... into a paper bag and remove it the next day with any assurance that you don't have the virus inside of that mask," Lalasz said. "You wear that thing like I said almost 12 hours a day and you could be breathing [the virus] in, and that’s why you wear it in the first place."
Then, there was an argument over whether the hospital should provide shoe and head coverings to nurses and other healthcare workers who had to go into COVID-19 patients' rooms.
A couple days after the nurses won that dispute, the hospital said they were running out of the gowns and that nurses would have to wear the same gown to treat multiple patients.
Lalasz, whose unit has been treating patients from the Cook County Jail, said that caused a problem: She had to walk by correctional officers who didn't have protective gear in order to go from one patient's room to the next.
"When I would go into the room, I would tell the officers, 'I’m going to have to wear this same gown to this patient's room next door, here's my path to get to that patient, you're way too close to me. I don't want to contaminate you,'" she said.
To stay safe, Lalasz said she was left with no choice but to find her own gear online.
"I have my own face shields, I have my own foot covers, I have my own head covers, I bought disposable scrub gowns," Lalasz said.
Finding the products hasn't been easy. She was able to get some foot and head covers through Amazon, but then they ran out. She tried to order disposable scrubs from medical supply companies who sell products through the site, but they also were out of stock.
So she and her colleagues turned to eBay, which has been a mixed bag in terms of the quality of the products. Lalasz said she earlier this month had to send back a package of gowns to a seller in Florida because they didn't pass the nurses' water test.
"It ends up being kind of a step down and you're kind of in this open market," she said.
As of last week, Lalasz said nurses had the protective equipment that they need. However, they have to stay vigilant, she said, because there still isn't enough PPE to go around — making her workplace dangerous.
"There's a nationwide shortage," Lalasz said. "We are not prepared, we haven't been, and we are still not prepared for what we need."