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Front-line Health Care Workers, Bracing For A Surge, Issue Another Plea For Help To Gov. Baker

Governor Charlie Baker stands and listens as Lt. Governor Karyn Polito speaks to the news media during a daily coronavirus update. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Governor Charlie Baker stands and listens as Lt. Governor Karyn Polito speaks to the news media during a daily coronavirus update. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

More than 900 doctors, nurses, physician assistants and other caregivers have signed a second petition to Gov. Charlie Baker demanding more help as the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 climbs and more hospital staff test positive for the coronavirus.

There are over 1,000 such cases among hospitals reporting their staff infection numbers to WBUR.

This letter, unlike one sent to Baker two weeks ago, does not warn that hospitals across the state are on the verge of collapse, but Dr. Karen Leitner, one of the petition organizers, says clinicians still feel that threat.

“There is a lot of progress that’s been made,” Leitner says, thanking the Baker administration. “But there are already hospitals taking crisis measures ... with staffing and equipment — the health care system is on the verge of being overwhelmed.”

The letter from a newly formed group that calls itself the COVID-19 Action Coalition, thanks Baker and his staff, but urges the governor to take care of more than a dozen immediate needs.

These clinicians want Baker to further limit the list of essential businesses, to stop construction, close gardening stores and halt landscaping operations. They're demanding a tighter stay-at-home advisory — one that would ban gatherings of any size in public. The state imposed new limits on grocery stores Tuesday, saying they must not exceed 40% of allowed capacity at any given time.

The petition says the governor must tell hospitals to allow staff to bring their own protective equipment to work, including masks, face shields and full body suits. That request has the backing of the Joint Commission, a national hospital accreditation agency. But some hospitals are not allowing this. They say the individual items are not certified or that doing so will create a “have and have not" tension among staff.

Some anesthesiologists and others who work in ICUs, among the highest risk group of caregivers, say they need full body protection as is recommended by researchers at Stanford University and the Scripps Research Translational Institute.

The letter asks Baker to offer incentives to manufacturers that can ramp up production of protective gear, including items such as the full body suits that aren’t currently part of standard protective gear kits.

Dr. Cheri Weaver, an emergency medicine physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Milton, says she wears the same N95 mask through a whole shift — even though the recommendation is to change in between patients. At the end of a shift, she puts that mask in a paper bag and doesn’t use it again for three to four days, hoping any coronavirus infection will be gone by the time she pulls it out of the bag and dons the mask again.

“We’re getting creative in ways to recycle,” says Weaver, “so we at least have some protection as we’re taking care of patients, but we’re using single-use objects in a way they weren’t intended to [be used]."

Partners HealthCare is opening a site in Somerville it says will be able to decontaminate up to 80,000 masks a day, but Weaver says there are issues that still need to be worked out, like safe transportation of contaminated masks and redistribution of those ready for reuse.

In the petition, the health care workers urge the governor to throw testing into hyperdrive. Baker says Massachusetts is ahead of almost every state in the number of tests performed, but there are still health centers, doctors and nurse practitioners who say they can’t test everyone who is sick.

These front-line health care workers want immediate access to isolation centers for patients who have a milder form of COVID-19 or who are positive without symptoms, but can’t isolate within their home or don’t have a home. Baker said last week that he would have an update on isolation centers soon, as part of a contact tracing project he’s launching with the nonprofit Partners in Health.

On Wednesday afternoon Baker responded to one item in the letter, filing legislation to protect health care workers from medical malpractice lawsuits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The change would be temporary and has been adopted by at least two states, New York and Illinois, so far.

The coalition anticipates the need to move staff between hospitals during a surge to assist colleagues. The group says the state must temporarily pause the credentialing required by individual hospitals and ease medical record-keeping so that clinicians don’t have to learn new systems and can focus on patient care.

Baker has not responded to requests for comment on the letter or on the individual demands it contains.

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Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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