U.S. Health Workers Question Safety Measures As Coronavirus Looms : Shots - Health News The plight of Chinese health care workers contracting the coronavirus has prompted front-line medical staff in the U.S. to wonder if they're protected. Hospitals say they're taking steps to prepare.
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As U.S. Preps For Coronavirus, Health Workers Question Safety Measures

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As U.S. Preps For Coronavirus, Health Workers Question Safety Measures

As U.S. Preps For Coronavirus, Health Workers Question Safety Measures

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Tonight, President Trump briefed the nation on how his administration is tackling the threat of a coronavirus outbreak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're screening people and we have been at a very high level - screening people coming into the country from infected areas. We have inquarantined (ph) those infected and those at risk.

CHANG: Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are now 60 cases of the virus in the U.S., and the U.S. health care system is bracing for more. But some health care workers here say they don't feel prepared. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: So far, coronavirus cases in this country have been isolated. But this week, the Center for Disease Control warned communities to prepare for an outbreak. That worries Maureen Dugan. She's a veteran nurse at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. This month, two coronavirus patients were transferred there. UCSF is one of the premier hospitals in the country, but Dugan says her frustrations are mounting because she says her employer offered little notice or training to those caring for the infected patients.

MAUREEN DUGAN: We want to do the best. We work extremely hard to do the best for our patients, so don't set us up to fail. It's not only nurses. It's all the other staff. It's our nursing assistants. It's transport. Every staff member is worried.

NOGUCHI: Coronavirus has yet to sicken American health care workers as it has in China, but deaths of hospital workers there have heightened scrutiny of the U.S. health care system's ability to protect people on the front line. Dugan says the medical community wasn't fully prepared for previous viruses, like SARS and Ebola, and she's concerned lessons learned are not being applied today. For example, the medical wear provided, she says, leaves their necks exposed.

DUGAN: The gowns that they're providing are inadequate. I'm sorry. I get very passionate about this because we work so hard to make sure that our nurses were protected and, therefore, they can protect the public.

NOGUCHI: In a response, UCSF said it's taken multiple extensive safety precautions, including isolating sick patients and training for proper use of safety gear. It said it briefed workers treating the patients, but the hospital does not, as a matter of course, inform general staff of incoming infection cases. Thus far, hospitals in the U.S. have been able to plan for incoming patients. That's very different from an outbreak, where sick people come in off the street. That is far more dangerous for health care workers and the public they treat.

Mark Rupp is chief of infectious disease at the University of Nebraska.

MARK RUPP: It's the unrecognized case that comes through your hospital system or your clinics that really pose the greatest risk.

NOGUCHI: Rupp's hospital is considered a model for managing infections. It's pioneering medical center is one of the few with experience treating Ebola. It has an isolation chamber that filters pathogens. It practices dry runs, making sure respiration masks fit workers. Most critically, he says, it screens patients at the hospital's entrance.

RUPP: Right at the front door, we sequester people away from the rest of the traffic.

NOGUCHI: That's one of the biggest hazards, he says. A coughing patient can quickly infect medical staff and other patients waiting at emergency rooms and doctors' offices. But what about the thousands of other hospitals without extensive experience with the riskiest cases? How are they bracing for a potential outbreak?

Nancy Foster is the American Hospital Association's vice president of patient safety.

NANCY FOSTER: Everyone I've spoken to has taken substantial steps to make sure that they are prepared.

NOGUCHI: Steps like isolating infectious patients and conserving face masks to ensure supplies last - but not all staff working at those hospitals feel ready. The National Nurses Union is conducting an ongoing survey. As of last week, about a third of nurses surveyed said they didn't have enough protective gear to handle a surge of coronavirus cases. Only 9% said their hospital or clinic had plans to isolate potentially infected patients.

Bonnie Castillo is president of the National Nurses Union.

BONNIE CASTILLO: That's not high enough for us to feel comfortable.

NOGUCHI: Castillo notes many hospitals are already operating at capacity. She worries if the coronavirus spreads, it will stress the system even more.

CASTILLO: If health care workers and nurses aren't protected, no one is protected.

NOGUCHI: Meanwhile, the White House has requested over a billion dollars in new funding to support preparedness and vaccine development. Congressional Democrats and some Republicans are calling the amount insufficient.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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