It was a busy morning on March 13 at our Philadelphia health center when feelings of dread started to close in. Four of the first five patients on my schedule were reporting flulike symptoms. As a family nurse practitioner with 15 years of nursing experience, I planned to rule out COVID-19 to keep these patients and their families safe and help stop the spread of the disease.
But when I tried to order COVID-19 tests, I discovered we had only four testing kits available for our entire 6,000-patient practice. I also learned that we tried to order 300 COVID-19 tests, but received only five.
Just one week earlier, President Donald Trump had proclaimed to the nation: “Anybody that needs a test gets a test — they’re there, and the tests are beautiful.”
I wondered: Where are all of those beautiful tests?
I soon learned that our requests to restock our gloves, masks, respirators, protective gowns, and disinfectant products were already on backorder by medical supply companies. Though the pandemic had just started to hit our city, we were already desperate — and not alone.
Now, our colleagues in New York are wearing garbage bags for protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us to wear bandannas and scarfs if we run out of personal protective equipment (PPE), and there is palpable fear that we will be infected with the virus we are trying to fight.
Moments of heart-pounding panic for health-care workers are many. Do we have enough equipment to handle this? Is my mask tight enough? Did I just infect myself by examining that patient/ taking my gown off wrong/ reusing my PPE?
One nursing colleague shared with me that she and her coworkers are terrified. “We want to be on the front lines,” she said. “However, we feel the risk we are taking on is irresponsible. We’re afraid that we will be sidelined [from patients] when we get sick and then expose our families. We signed up to be at risk. Our families did not.”
How did we, the United States of America, find our health-care system so utterly unprepared for this crisis? In 2018, the Trump administration disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic response team that would have planned the national response when the virus first appeared. When the first documented case of COVID-19 was reported over a year-and-a-half later, the administration wasted a precious month that could have been spent containing the virus and stocking up on equipment. It also gave away 17.8 tons of PPE to China.
Faced with a global pandemic, health-care workers are looking for a leader — a proactive one who tells the truth, solves problems, and rallies the talents and strengths of an American public eager to help our fellow citizens. While local and state officials like Mayor Jim Kenney and Gov. Tom Wolf are trying to obtain supplies and prepare for the surge of COVID-19 cases, their ability to respond is ultimately limited by the powers the president chooses to exercise, and the support the federal government offers.
The Trump administration should be leading universities, hospitals, and research institutions to collaborate on treatments, cures, interventions, and a vaccine to stop COVID-19. Instead, we continue to find ourselves playing catch-up.
Three weeks later, our health center remains low on PPE. The feelings of dread remain. My nursing and health-care colleagues across the nation and I will continue to work around shortages, including taking the chance of repeatedly reusing our protective equipment, because we will always fight to be there for our amazing patients. We hope the president begins to consistently act as if our patients’ lives are at stake. Because that’s what we do every day when we risk our own safety by showing up for work.
Meanwhile, we keep waiting — and hoping — for more tests and protective equipment. Our lives, and our families’, depend on it.
Tarik Sharif Khan is a practicing family nurse practitioner in Philadelphia, an associate fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.