A doctor puts on gloves. (CDC.gov)

UPDATE: A day after this story was published, LCMC Health’s CEO acknowledged that protective gear was running low.

Several healthcare providers at Touro Infirmary this weekend described potentially harmful rationing of personal protective equipment — like masks and gowns — at the Uptown hospital. A doctor affiliated with the hospital also said that the protective equipment it does have is being wasted on patients who turn out to be negative for the virus, but have been admitted and isolated for days waiting on testing results to come back.

A spokesperson for LCMC Health, which runs Touro, strongly denied that there was any shortage of equipment at the hospital. 

An employee at University Medical Center — which, like Touro, is run by LCMC Health — said that hospital is not currently experiencing any worrisome equipment shortages or rationing. The only thing the hospital is short on at all is a specialty mask, but the employee said there are procedures in place to account for that. 

Dr. William LaCorte, an independent internal and geriatric medicine doctor affiliated with Touro, was inside the hospital when he spoke to The Lens by phone over the weekend. As he spoke he made his way down to the unit where the hospital is isolating positive and suspected COVID-19 patients, speaking to a group of employees working there. 

LaCorte said there are still plenty of rooms to isolate the patients. But he asked the group if they were running out of equipment. They initially said no, adding that they are being sent masks, gloves and gowns every day. When LaCorte pressed them, however, they said that they are being limited to one mask and gown for their full shift, even as they move between rooms housing patients who have tested positive for the virus and those who are in isolation as they await results. 

The group said the decision “came from the higher-ups.” 

Mary Beth Romig-Haskins, a spokeswoman for LCMC Health, denied reports that staff members were being told to use a single gown throughout their shifts. 

“It’s not true,” she said. 

But one of the founders of the charity Supplies for Saints, which has been coordinating donations of protective gear to local hospitals, reported hearing the same thing after speaking directly with people working in hospital supplies.

“I can corroborate,” the charity cofounder, who asked not to be identified by name, told The Lens in a phone interview. “That is actually what is happening.”

The Supplies for Saints co-founder said that Touro has been given about 1,000 masks since Friday*, which if changed between seeing patients, will not last long. 

LaCorte and the other employees said the problem with the equipment comes in part from the amount of time it takes to process coronavirus tests. 

“It’s supposed to take 48 hours, but it’s taken longer than that,” said one employee. 

Slow testing means that people who ultimately end up testing negative for the virus can languish in isolation in the hospital for days, LaCorte said. And even though the hospital has enough rooms for more patients, he said, doctors and nurses can waste personal protective equipment treating them. 

“We go into full protective gear,” LaCorte said. “Then you find out two days later they’re negative.” 

LaCorte said that LCMC Health has not been able to speed up its testing as other hospitals report they have

“I think it’s an administrative failure,” LaCorte said. 

Romig-Haskins did not address testing, and declined to answer further questions. 

UMC employee says supplies are fine, concerned about what could come

The employee from University Medical Center, meanwhile, did not complain of any pressing equipment problems at the hospital, which is state-owned but run by LCMC Health.

The employee, who asked to be quoted anonymously, said UMC is likely better positioned than most other hospitals locally because it is equipped and staffed as the region’s safety net hospital.

“The thing in shortest supply are masks,” the employee said, referring to N95 respirator masks. Doctors and other staff have been told to use those masks five times for the same patient.  Each mask is assigned to a particular patient until it has been used five times. The hospital has a sterilization procedure for them. And staff members wear normal surgery masks over them. 

“I actually do see it as fine. I actually do think we’re a little wasteful with N95s,” the employee said. 

Though the hospital is far from running out of critical supplies like ventilators and personal protective equipment, the employee said the potential for a shortage has been on people’s minds there. 

“For ventilators and PPE, I don’t know what’s going to happen if we run out,” the employee said. During a Sunday press conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards emphasized that the state is making an aggressive push to acquire protective gear from around the world. 

As for staffing, UMC has backup teams in place, staffed with residents who specialize in fields of medicine related to treatment for the virus. The employee said that in some other cities, hospitals have used, or at least talked about using, doctors from unrelated fields, such as gastroenterology, to help with the coronavirus overflow. “I don’t think we’re quite there yet.” 

Still, the UMC employee said, the hospital has begun to see a major uptick in COVID-19 patients. 

“It’s been dramatic,” said the employee, who could not immediately offer an estimate of patients requiring hospital care for the diseases. 

Asked about the demographics of the patients, the UMC employee said it has been a wide range of people, not just the elderly or immunocompromised. 

“It’s a wider range than that. We have pretty critically ill people in their 30s and 40s. … It’s not like you’re safe if you don’t have asthma,” the employee said. “That’s kind of what’s scary about this thing. You don’t know who’s going to be critical.”

*Correction: As originally published, this story incorrectly reported the Supplies for Saints co-founder as saying that 1,000 masks had been delivered to Touro on Monday. In fact, 500 were delivered on Friday and another 500 over the weekend.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...