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'We are in a war': Austin doctors running out of protective equipment to treat coronavirus patients

Doctors in Austin are running out of protective masks and goggles as they continue to treat people with symptoms of COVID-19.

AUSTIN, Texas — Doctors across the country are desperately looking for protective equipment as they continue to treat patients with COVID-19.

That protective equipment includes mostly masks and eyewear.

“We’re struggling; we’re begging for more masks," Dr. Natasha Kathuria, an ER doctor at Austin Emergency Center, said. “We burn through this so fast, every patient encounter.”

Kathuria calls this a war against coronavirus. Doctors across the U.S. have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as a result of treating patients. She said if doctors don't have protective equipment, then they could contract the virus, forcing their colleagues to quarantine for the recommended 14 days. Normally, doctors use one mask per patient. According to her, doctors have been re-using masks after cleaning them as well as keeping them in a brown paper bag.

“We are all out there and we are all terrified," Kathuria said. "Doctors getting infected, doctors getting exposed, nurses are being quarantined for exposures.”

On the other side of town at Austin Regional Clinic - Far West, Dr. Jay Zdunek, the chief medical officer at the clinic, said their supplies of protective equipment is at "adequate levels, but not ideal."

“No matter where we look, pretty much everybody is out of stock or on back order," Zdunek said. "We are usually stocked to be able to provide up to 110,000 to 111,000 patients per month of our normal utilization. Now, not every patient we see every day requires us to use protective equipment.”

Kathuria said part of the problem is people buying N95 masks, typically used by painters, carpenters or medical professionals. Instead, she recommends buying a typical surgical mask. According to Kathuria, those masks get the job done for people in the public while the N95 masks are more specialized and can give greater protection to those fighting the virus in the ER, hospital and/or doctor offices.

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“We have to ration our protective equipment otherwise no one is going to be able to take care of anybody," Kathuria said.

Another problem doctors are facing is the lack of ventilators. Zdunek said his clinic does not have access to many, but that hospitals and ERs are in desperate need of them.

"That is the number one critical concern of all the healthcare systems is having adequate number of ICU beds and an adequate number of ventilators for the patient population," Zdunek said.

According to Kathuria, ventilators are used when a patient has taken a turn for the worse and needs help breathing.

“Not having enough ventilators means we can’t take care of the critically ill," Kathuria said. "If we don’t have enough protective equipment, we can’t take care of anybody and our staff is going to get knocked out.”

On Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called on the Department of Health and Human services to release more ventilators in order to help the critically ill population suffering from coronavirus.

“Without more ventilators and workers to operate them, hospitals will soon be unable to provide these life-saving machines to a number of their critically ill patients, and doctors will have to make life-or-death decisions about who needs the machines most," Cruz released in a statement.

To protect patients, Zdunek said ARC has tried to move as many appointments to televisits as possible so as to not force anybody to come to the clinic who may have been exposed, or who could get exposed, to coronavirus.

“In this moment in time, it is almost every patient we’re seeing that has to be able to have some protective equipment either for the provider or for the patient," Zdunek said.

If you have any unused, spare N95 masks that you would like to donate, you can donate directly to ARC or the Travis County Medical Society.

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