A sign in front of University Medical Center thanks healthcare workers as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in New Orleans. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

LCMC Health CEO Greg Feirn said that personal protective gear — potentially including masks, gloves and gowns — critical to protecting healthcare workers from contracting or spreading the new coronavirus, “is at low levels” in the five-hospital network, though saying that hospitals should be resupplied over the next several weeks.

The email statement — sent Tuesday morning and addressed to “The LCMC Health family” — urges doctors and nurses to “conserve our PPE as much as possible,” linking to a policy statement on protocols for dealing with critical shortages of the supplies, including through reuse. The policy says that employees should only use one surgical mask per shift and one gown per patient. Specialty N95 respirator masks — which have been in short supply throughout the country during the coronavirus outbreak — are to be limited for specific procedures. 

“Our Supply Chain team is doing an exceptional job sourcing supplies through many different avenues and we expect to get shipments into our facilities over the next several weeks,” the statement said. It also said LCMC facilities expect to open up 75 new ICU beds to address the crisis. 

The message from Feirn appears to contradict an LCMC spokesperson’s statement to The Lens earlier this week, denying that rationing of gear was taking place at Touro Infirmary, an LCMC hospital, in spite of reports from staff that rationing was happening. 

LCMC spokesperson Mary Beth Romig-Haskins did not respond to requests for comment. 

A University Medical Center employee, who spoke to The Lens on the condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that personal protective equipment is being rationed there as well. The employee said the procedures actually in place to conserve the gear varies from day to day and supervisor to supervisor. Sometimes employees are being told to use one mask or gown per day; sometimes they are being told to use one per patient; sometimes they are being told to use them as they normally would, discarding them between patient visits. 

“When I worked on Sunday, I had three patient rooms. I had three gowns. It’s confusing because it’s such mayhem right now,” the employee said. “Even if we’re listening to a supervisor saying use them as needed, we don’t have enough.” 

The employee said that supervisors are not to blame for the problem. 

“They’re doing the best with what they can,” the employee said. “If we were following proper PPE measures for these patients, we would be putting on a new gown and N95 mask each time we entered a room. And that’s just not possible.” 

The shortage of supplies is not limited to LCMC hospitals — a group from Tulane Medical School this week sent out appeals for donations of supplies for Tulane Medical Center — or to the New Orleans area. Hospitals across the country are reporting shortages or soon-to-be-shortages of protective gear as the virus spreads and more patients are admitted. 

LCMC runs five major hospitals in the New Orleans metropolitan area — Touro, University Medical Center, Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, New Orleans East Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center — as well as several health clinics. According to Feirn’s email, the network was treating 290 suspected or confirmed coronavirus inpatients as of Tuesday morning. That’s nearly a quarter of the 1,252 people — according to data provided to the press on Tuesday by Gov. John Bel Edwards — admitted to hospitals statewide because they suspected or confirmed. About 25 percent of those patients are being treated in intensive care units. 

Far more, however, do not require hospitalization. Consistent with national and international data, about 80 percent of suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients who have gone to LCMC Health for treatment have mild symptoms and can be treated as outpatients. Based on the figures in Feirn’s statement, LCMC Health is treating about 1,160 suspected or confirmed cases with mild symptoms. 

Feirn’s email did not say how many, of those patients, have been confirmed and how many are awaiting testing results. Statewide, there were 1,388 confirmed cases as of 12 p.m. on Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health. 

The Lens asked Romig-Haskins to confirm those numbers. She did not respond. 

At his Tuesday press conference, Edwards said he was increasingly concerned about the spread in the state, which has reported some of the highest infection numbers per capita in the country. New Orleans is the epicenter of infections in the state. 

“We think we might exceed our capacity in Region 1, down in New Orleans—  it would be in the April 4, 5 timeframe. That is going to be refined every day.” Edwards said.

The UMC employee could not cite the numbers of patients coming into the hospital with symptoms, but described people getting worse very quickly, having to be intubated in the emergency room after they come in, rather than being moved into the ICU. 

The reuse of protective gear, the employee said, could exacerbate the spread of the disease and put medical personnel in danger, at a time they are needed the most. 

“I’m extremely concerned about my own health. If I had the proper PPE to wear, I would be very minorly concerned,” the employee said, saying that the sanitary procedures being used on reused equipment — like using sanitary wipes on gowns — can’t possibly eliminate every particle of the virus. “We’re not flattening this curve by treating all these patients with reused PPE.” 

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...