Health Systems In Dire Need of Personal Protective Equipment

Op-Ed By: UNC Health CEO Dr. Wesley Burks

As the leader of UNC Health, a system of 11 hospitals across our State and the Dean of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, to say the last several weeks have been stressful would be a vast understatement. Our collective mission is to promote the health and well-being of the people of North Carolina. During this COVID-19 pandemic our two priorities are the appropriate diagnosis and care of our patients and the safety of our co-workers. Individuals across our state are stepping up to help in this crisis. In our system, we have created a leadership team to oversee vast preparation and operational strategies. The level of coordination from our senior executive team, our affiliate leaders and every clinical and operational aspect of our system has proven truly remarkable. The collaboration with other health systems in our state and the leadership of the Governor and legislative leaders has been extraordinary.

We are prepared for the initial levels of patients admitted to our hospitals with COVID-19. However, if we get to a situation similar to Italy, Seattle or New York City — if intensive care unit space or more beds are needed beyond our current capacity — it would be catastrophic in North Carolina, as it will in many places across the country.

To treat our patients and ensure the safety of our co-workers, we need diagnostic testing capacity and supplies, including reagents (chemicals), swabs and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including masks and face shields. One of our researchers, Dr. Melissa Miller, developed an in-house diagnostic COVID-19 test. She received the direct help of our U.S. legislative delegation and the FDA and was able to increase our testing capacity and provide faster turnaround time that was desperately needed. Now we need the supplies, including swabs, to keep going and these are in extremely short supply.

Most importantly, we and all the health care systems and providers are in dire need of the various types of PPE. Despite what many may read, every place of care in the country does not have an adequate supply for the next two months of patient care. This current situation is the equivalent of sending our army into battle with vastly inferior equipment. We are asking our health care co-workers to put their lives on the line without adequate protection – as a country, we would never do this for our military soldiers.

The risk in caring for patients with COVID-19 for our health care co-workers is thought to be acceptable, but only with adequate PPE. We will be good with supplies of PPE for the next couple of weeks. But as the pandemic continues, we and others will try to extend our PPE supplies by reusing them and many other novel ways to extend usage by making new ones with homemade supplies. We would never send our troops into action with homemade guns or other artillery. We are being told as a last resort to use bandannas; we would never send our troops to battle with a BB gun.

On behalf of nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists and so many other health care co-workers everywhere, we are asking for a true national response to this lack of PPE. If mobilized appropriately the supply could be replenished in 2-3 weeks and save thousands of health care co-workers.

To help replenish the supply, UNC Health is urging community organizations, corporations and individuals to donate much-needed medical supplies.