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Health Care Workers Say They Are Punished For Speaking Out


Are American hospitals ready for what's coming? Many expect a surge of coronavirus patients in the weeks ahead. Officials hope that social distancing will delay that surge. It is now settled that Americans will stay home for a while. The president dropped a push to reopen by Easter, and states have been tightening restrictions in recent days. Still, the number of cases has yet to peak. So this morning we have a status report on hospital preparations. NPR's Leila Fadel begins our coverage. Good morning.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Remind us what hospitals need.

FADEL: So it's really a question of math. There's a surge of patients coming, and states are trying to figure out what they'll need to be ready - so the right number of ICU beds, the right number of ventilators, the right number of medical personnel, the right number of masks - and all of this based on different projection models.

INSKEEP: Projection models that could be right, could be wrong.

FADEL: Exactly.

INSKEEP: But you have to be prepared for the worst, I suppose. There have been weeks of attention on these basic elements, these basic supplies. People have been scouring stockpiles. So what shape are hospitals in?

FADEL: Right. Well, it's really hard to give a national figure. It's different place to place - for example, California projecting it'll need 50,000 beds and 10,000 ventilators and working toward those numbers. Across the country, governors, other local officials asking for federal help. Some of that has arrived or been promised to hot spots, the epicenter being New York, but also places like Louisiana, California as I mentioned, Michigan, Washington state. Those states allocating state, county and city money to purchase gloves, masks, face shields, tests, and they're scrounging for as many ventilators as they can find.

The California governor, Gavin Newsom, yesterday even asking people to donate broken ventilators so manufacturers can fix them. In places like Michigan, the governor has said some hospitals could be in dire straits by the end of this week, even with the 112,000 masks the state has gotten from the national stockpile. Meanwhile, the states are working to boost bed capacity at existing hospitals, building mobile hospitals with federal help, working to convert places like convention centers, dorm rooms to medical sites. Yesterday the White House said it was further easing restrictions on where health care can be provided during this crisis, places like dorm rooms.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking, though, that the bed or the mask or the ventilator is useless without a health care professional to to make use of it. How is staffing going?

FADEL: Right. That's a huge concern - places wanting volunteers for the hot spots and a lot of medical workers feeling like they don't have the proper gear to protect themselves. And if they get infected, then who battles the virus? And in some cases, when they bring their own gear or where their N95 masks outside of treating patients with infectious disease, they say they're getting in trouble.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute - why would medical workers get in trouble for trying to protect themselves a little more than is required?

FADEL: Well, so take Henryk Nikicicz in El Paso, Texas. He's an anesthesiologist. He's 60, has asthma, prone to upper respiratory infections. And he was wearing his hospital issued N95 mask all day in the hospital, including the hallways. And he says he was told by the hospital he was scaring patients. When he refused to take it off, he was taken off the rotation schedule.

HENRYK NIKICICZ: Wearing the mask is one of the basic ways of stopping the spread of the virus. And the right thing to do is to wear a mask. To punish me for wearing the mask is something that I really feel is wrong.

FADEL: So when I asked the hospital about this, they said the company that contracts him took him off the schedule for insubordination. After I asked for comment, he was put back on rotation, and the company said he was taken off because of cuts versus the mask. And I heard stories like this from other parts of the country as well.

INSKEEP: OK, so one snapshot of different parts of the hospital system across the country comes from NPR's Leila Fadel. Leila, thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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