If We Run Out of Masks, We’re Going to Run Out of Nurses, Says Emergency Doctor

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. rises to more than 35,000, doctors are facing a desperate lack of supplies, and tests continue to lag. We speak with Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner. She says healthcare workers are “putting their lives on the line every day” as they work in hazardous conditions with inadequate supplies, including N95 respirator masks. “First we’re going to run out of masks, and then we’re going to run out of doctors and nurses, because they’ll become sick,” Dr. Wen warns.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. We’re in New York City. As the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. tops 35,000 — and, of course, we don’t know how many people are positive at this point — with at least 465 fatalities, tests continue to lag, with medical workers facing a desperate lack of supplies and protective gear. Nearly half the U.S. cases are here in New York state, where there were nearly 17,000 cases, at least 150 deaths, as of last night. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned the city is just 10 days away from massive shortages of critical supplies, as he blasted Trump for his response to the pandemic. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has urged Washington to take over the production and acquisition of much-needed medical supplies, as states have been forced to compete with each other to buy, somewhere in the world, fast-dwindling resources. Illinois Governor Pritzker blasted the federal government for forcing states to compete on Sunday, telling CNN, “We need millions of masks and hundreds of thousands of gowns and gloves and the rest. And, unfortunately, we’re getting still just a fraction of that. So, we’re out on the open market competing for these items that we so badly need. … It’s a Wild West out there,” Pritzker said.

Well, for more, we go to Baltimore, where we’re joined by Dr. Leana Wen, emergency room physician, public health professor at George Washington University, previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Dr. Wen. If you can talk about what this both lack of testing means, of the whole population, and what the lack of the PPEs, the personal protective equipment, for frontline healthcare workers means?

DR. LEANA WEN: Absolutely, Amy, and thank you for covering this important topic. The lack of testing has been a huge issue in the U.S. and really was a major misstep, because we do not have a handle at all on the true number of cases here, and we lost valuable time. Look, China imposed some really strict restrictions on their population to buy the rest of the world time. We had weeks to figure out who has coronavirus here in the U.S. and to apply tried-and-true public health strategies, which is containment, to figure out who has coronavirus and how can we contain this new pathogen within our borders. But we were not able to do that. And we still don’t know. And, in fact, the true number of cases probably far exceeds what we know, because we still don’t have the capacity to do testing in the U.S., by any means. I mean, even people who are symptomatic, who are ill, are not able to get the test that they need.

But you mentioned this other issue, which is the lack of personal protective equipment, which I find to be the most shocking of all, because just two months ago we were looking at the images coming from China, and we were seeing nurses who had to make their own goggles and doctors who were getting garbage bags and trying to make gowns out of garbage bags and rain ponchos. And we were saying, “Wow! I can’t believe that’s happening.” We never thought that that could happen in the U.S. But my colleagues are pleading over social media. They’re going to Home Depot and Lowe’s during their off hours to see if they can get just one mask. And that just cannot happen. I mean, our healthcare workers are putting their lives on the line every day. And now they’re terrified to come home. First, we’re going to run out of masks, and then we’re going to run out of doctors and nurses, because they’ll become sick and not be able to work. And it’s just unconscionable that at this time of a national emergency, that we are not mobilizing our national resources to help those most in need.

And it’s not a secret as to what we need. It’s right there out in the open. And we no longer — it’s not OK to have our political leaders say that everything is fine, when it’s not. And there are tangible things that they can do in order to mobilize, so that we don’t have this crisis turn into a catastrophe, where hundreds of thousands of people will die because of our political inaction.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain what can be done, the powers that President Trump has to have factories make, for example, these masks? He keeps saying that they are simply out there, they’re available, everyone has them. When the head of FEMA was asked, “How many masks do you have?” pinned down when Jake Tapper of CNN tried to ask him yesterday, he said something like, “I don’t know. I was just called into this five days ago. I don’t have a number.” Why was FEMA just called in five days ago? As President Trump keeps saying that he was a visionary and understood there was a pandemic, that’s why he closed the border so early, if that’s the case at the end of January, the beginning of February, why didn’t he mobilize both the testing and also the making of these life-saving masks? And how could it be done now? How can these governors, who are desperately now competing with each other on the open market to buy masks for their healthcare workers?

DR. LEANA WEN: I mean, I think you said exactly — what you said is exactly right, that at this point we have to look forward. Look, we could look back and say all these things should have been done differently. And frankly, they should have been, because we had time. We had weeks, months to prepare for this, and we didn’t make use of that time. But now we need to move forward, and we need to move forward by taking direct action, because let me tell you what my colleagues are seeing on the frontlines. My colleagues are being told that, yes, they’re supposed to have these N95 respiratory masks, but they’re out, and, by the way, we may be out of surgical masks, and so let’s figure out how to spray down these very flimsy masks with alcohol, in a way that’s not evidence-based and will disintegrate these masks, but that’s still better than nothing. I mean, that’s just not appropriate. Or having people scrounge around — I mean, my Facebook feed is filled with my colleagues, who I trained with — nurses, physician assistants, doctors — asking family members if they can somehow look in their communities and ask their neighbors to be donating masks. That just cannot be happening in our country.

The president has the ability, through the Defense Production Act, to order manufacturers on a federal basis to produce these life-saving equipment. Now, that’s what should be done. I mean, I understand that there are individuals who are being good citizens and volunteering to sew masks and using their 3D printers, and companies are making donations. I mean, all that’s very nice and good to see, but we need a national coordinated effort. This is a national emergency. If this were a war, and hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, are going to die, you wouldn’t be asking everyday citizens to be making armor and machinery. You wouldn’t be asking soldiers to buy their own ammunition and look for it in their local stores. But that’s what’s happening right now, and it’s simply unacceptable. And we’re going to have the blood of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or more people on our hands if we don’t take that prompt action right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about, with these daily briefings, to put the scientists and the doctors forward first? Yesterday, President Trump and Vice President Pence, they spoke for about an hour and a half at the White House, deeply political, you know, attacking immigrants, reporters, etc. What would it mean to have a science-led response to this?

DR. LEANA WEN: Well, this is a public health crisis, and a public health crisis deserves and requires a public health response, which is based in evidence, science and data. And frankly, that’s what the American people want, too. The American people want to know the truth. I mean, I think about this as I would be talking to my patients. If I’m giving my patients news about a disease that they might have, my job is not to sugarcoat the truth. My job is to talk about what we know, what we don’t know, and how we’re going to find out what we don’t know, and what are the actions that we can take together.

I mean, frankly, with this virus, we are not powerless. But it is very serious. And so there are things that we can do right now. Those things would include really good hand and face hygiene, social distancing and physically separating ourselves from others so as to reduce the rate of transmission. These are actions that each of us can take right now to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and to save each other, because our fates are tied closely together. I mean, these are things that we need to hear directly from the scientists and public health experts, because our responses should be based on science and data.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Leana Wen, you are what, 38, 39 weeks pregnant?

DR. LEANA WEN: That’s right. I am more than 38 weeks pregnant at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re about to give birth. Can you talk about the effects of coronavirus for pregnant women?

DR. LEANA WEN: I can. Again, I can tell you what I know and what I don’t know, because this is a new disease, and there is a lot that we don’t know. Based on the studies done so far, it does not appear that pregnant people have more severe illness than those who are not pregnant, from coronavirus. But that said, individuals who are pregnant do have a compromised immune system and are considered to be medically vulnerable and should take additional precautions. In addition, we also, because of how new this disease is, really don’t know the impact of coronavirus on the first and second trimesters of pregnancy, just because those data are not available.

Now, there are additional issues that have arisen now as a result of hospital overcrowding. I know that this is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. You know, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old. And when I was first — when I delivered my two-and-a-half-year-old, it was a very different world. And my husband was able to come into the delivery room. I was worried about following my birth plan and worried about what it would be like to have to do breast-feeding afterwards. They’re very different worries than now, when hospitals are changing their policies, and some hospitals are not even allowing another visitor, for fear of spreading infections.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s not even a visitor, as you said. New York-Presbyterian, the health complex in the United States, is now saying — they announced it would no longer allow any visitors for patients giving birth, including partners, even though the World Health Organization has said that all pregnant people, including those with confirmed suspected COVID-19, should have the right to have a chosen companion present during labor.

DR. LEANA WEN: I think this is the challenge that we all face right now, that you have to weigh the individual liberty versus public health. And right now we just have a runaway situation in the U.S., and extraordinary measures have to be taken. And it’s certainly something that I feel very deeply and very personally now, as I know that I’m about to go through this journey myself in a matter of — who knows? — hours to days.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, all the very best to you. Your final words in 20 seconds, the message you have for President Trump right now for what has to happen in this country?

DR. LEANA WEN: We need prompt action. We cannot hear that we hope to have more soon, because hope is not a strategy, more is not a quantity, and soon is not a timeline.

AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask you one last question. Almost every news conference, he begins by talking about the “Chinese virus.” You yourself are Chinese-American, came here as a child from China. We have 10 seconds.

DR. LEANA WEN: We need to follow the science of the evidence. The World Health Organization has a name for this disease. Let’s use that. It’s called COVID-19.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Leana Wen, all the very best to you, emergency physician, public health professor at George Washington University, previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.

That does it for our show. An enormous thank you to the whole team, my beloved community of Democracy Now!, many of whom are staying at home to protect the community but working ever so hard. Democracy Now! produced by Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Libby Rainey, Sam Alcoff, John Hamilton, Robby Karran. Special thanks to Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman. Thank you so much.