More than 1,000 Massachusetts doctors have sent Gov. Charlie Baker a letter and petition with a dire warning: If the state doesn’t impose stricter limits on public movement, find more protective equipment and increase testing for the coronavirus, the health care system is at risk of collapse.
They point out that cases of the coronavirus are continuing to double every two to three days in the state, and yet some healthcare workers are being asked to treat coronavirus patients without protective gear.
"Can we imagine asking hundreds of thousands of firefighters to make their own homemade fire-protective gear before combating the fire they are running into, and essentially spreading that fire to their homes?" they ask.
On Sunday night, as the confirmed coronavirus count increased in Massachusetts, nine anxious doctors and a few civic leaders dialed in to a conference call. They worried about a disconnect between the public perception that Massachusetts hospitals have everything under control, and the physicians’ reality.
"So many of our doctor colleagues were telling us they didn’t have enough supplies, they were scared to go to work," said Dr. Karen Leitner, a primary care doctor who does patient advocacy via telehealth.
She helped organize the petition, and says she is talking about the dangerous conditions because many of her colleagues can’t.
The situation varies from hospital to hospital, and that’s one of the concerns that doctors raise in the petition: A doctor at a well-financed hospital should not be better protected from the coronavirus than one at a community hospital.
Gov. Baker said Tuesday that the state has received 750,000 more protective items including masks, goggles and gowns.
Dr. Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency room physician at Boston Children’s Hospital, said he has no idea how long those supplies might last.
"But I can tell you that in the course of caring for a single patient, we can go through literally multiple dozens of pieces of equipment per day," he said.
Imagine Dr. Fleegler moving between patients with presumed or confirmed cases of the coronavirus, then removing his equipment to check on a patient with a broken arm or one who’s having a severe asthma attack, then suiting up again to check on a COVID-19 case. Now multiply that by all of the nurses and aides who might be doing the same. Fleegler likes to check on his patients face to face. But these days he doesn’t go back into a patient’s room for routine questions, so he can avoid using another set of protective gear.
"We’re doing things such as taking a parent’s cellphone number and trying to call them from outside the room just when we have basic questions that don’t require physical contact," he said.
Doctors and nurses at other hospitals are only getting one mask a day, and worry about whether they are carrying any infection from one room to the next.
That’s the state of affairs now, with the peak of the coronavirus outbreak looming, said Dr. Robbie Goldstein, who specializes in infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"We are seeing just the beginning of the increase in the curve here in Massachusetts," Goldstein said, "and we’re likely to see even more infections and people needing ICU level care over the next week to two."
If hospital staff aren’t protected and get sick, they can’t care for a surge of COVID-19 patients. The letter to Baker Goldstein signed also urges a war-like mentality that doesn’t wait for the federal government. It calls for more testing and stricter controls on public movement to slow the spread of infection — moving, for example, to delivery of food and other essential items.
Baker addressed the doctors' concerns at a briefing this afternoon.
"First of all, I know I speak for everyone in our administration when I say we share their frustration and dismay with all the issues associated with personal protective equipment," he said.
Baker said he’s trying to get more equipment but he and other governors continue to be outbid by the federal government when placing both domestic and international orders.
In a statement, a spokesperson from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said the state’s COVID-19 Response Command Center is working closely with hospitals to prepare for a surge.
“This surge capacity planning involves daily communications with hospitals, health systems, and other health care facilities to identify capacity, monitor trends in hospitalization, and plan for medical surge alongside public health and infectious disease efforts," the statement said.
Baker said testing will ramp up to 3,500 a day this week, he said, which is more than the physician petition asks for. But he did not impose stricter controls on public movement as the doctors had asked.
This article was originally published on March 25, 2020.
This segment aired on March 26, 2020.