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Amid concern for their safety, health care workers test positive for coronavirus

Medical providers on the front lines say supplies to protect them from the virus are running out.
Credit: KARE
MDH technician tests samples for COVID-19

ST PAUL, Minn. — For the first time, health care workers are among the Minnesotans with presumptive cases of coronavirus, the state health department said Tuesday.

The announcement comes as medical care providers across the state — from doctors, to nurses, to paramedics — they say they are running out of the equipment needed to protect them from the virus.

“We are limited by supplies, and as a result, health care workers on the front lines are very concerned about their safety,” said Dr. Robert Thomas, president of the Minneapolis-based Emergency Physicians Professional Association.

The primary concern is the dwindling supply of N95 respirator masks, which are specially fitted and filter out most airborne and droplet pathogens.

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Surgical masks, however, are not designed to protect against airborne particles. The coronavirus is generally spread by respiratory droplets on surfaces, Thomas said, but clinicians in close proximity to ill patients can also be exposed to respiratory droplets that are briefly in the air.   

The Centers for Disease Control said last week that surgical masks are “an acceptable alternative” if there are not enough N95 masks to go around when treating patients who have symptoms, such as fever and respiratory problems.

But care providers said they’d worry if they treated patients with only a surgical mask.

In Le Center Minnesota, south of the metro area, Emergency Medical Technician Stanley Stocker says they have at most three weeks worth of N95 masks left. He said he’s tried ordering more, but has been told they’re out of stock.

If at some point he has to go on a call to a patient with symptoms without an N95 mask, Stocker said he’s not only worried about his own safety, but his family’s.

“That’s the biggest fear for us,” he said. “It’s the after effect of bringing it home.”

The diminishing supply of masks has been a major concern for nurses across the state, said Rick Fuentes, a spokesman for the Minnesota Nurses Association.

He said for those nurses fortunate enough to get an N95 mask, some hospitals have instructed them to reuse them. But they’re only supposed to be worn once if there’s any suspicion of contamination.

He said nurses who only have surgical masks have been told they can wear a face shield, but “unfortunately there is a shortage on face shields.”

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Minnesota is not the only state facing a shortage of protective equipment. During a Tuesday press conference, Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged the problem. He said said the government wants to make N95 masks used for industrial purposes to be allowed in the medical fields.

But he provided no time table as to when that will be done.

The Minnesota Department of Health acknowledged Tuesday that they are concerned about the potential shortage and have asked the federal government for help.

“We are working with regional healthcare coalitions, with healthcare systems and hospitals to assess the availability of that personal protective equipment and that is our high priority,” said Kris Ehresmann, the health department’s infectious disease division director.

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Until help arrives, Dr. Thomas of the Emergency Physicians Professional Association said the public can play a significant role in making sure care providers have the needed protective equipment. Only go to a hospital or urgent care if necessary, he said. To make that determination, he suggested going to a care provider’s website and see if an online screening can be done.

Fewer patients there means the fewer times the masks have to be used.

“Short of being very short of breath or extremely ill, staying home may be your better solution,” he said.

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More information about the symptoms of COVID-19 can be found on MDH’s Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website, as well as additional information about how to protect yourself and your community.

MDH has set up a coronavirus hotline at 651-201-3920. People can call and ask questions 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.

KARE 11’s coverage of the coronavirus is rooted in Facts, not Fear. Visit kare11.com/coronavirus for comprehensive coverage, find out what you need to know about the Midwest specifically, learn more about the symptoms, and keep tabs on the cases around the world here. Have a question? Text it to us at 763-797-7215. And get the latest coronavirus updates sent right to your inbox every morning. Subscribe to the KARE 11 Sunrise newsletter here.

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