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Health Care Workers Need You to Be our Heroes. Here’s How.

Yes, health care workers have a sense of duty. And yes, us doctors are driven by the Hippocratic oath. But none of us want to be martyrs. When we speak out publicly about the lack of PPE, we are calling attention to a public health crisis compounding the catastrophes of COVID-19.

"Inadequate PPE (personal protective equipment) for health care workers is just one injustice in our inequitable health care system," writes Sririam.  (Image: Masks for America)

"Inadequate PPE (personal protective equipment) for health care workers is just one injustice in our inequitable health care system," writes Sriram.  (Image: Masks for America)

Health care workers across America are confronting COVID-19 with inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Very often, physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and our hospital colleagues are reusing masks against medical and public health advice. Many are storing the masks in paper bags between shifts to reduce bacterial overgrowth, but even this is only a stop-gap measure. Family members are sewing masks and using 3D printers to make face shields.

All of this resourcefulness and ingenuity is generous and appreciated. However, we still face the disheartening fact that too many health care workers are putting the lives of their patients and themselves at risk because of the lack of PPE.

Health care workers need you to be our heroes. Here’s three steps you can take:

1. If you can, please donate to Masks For America.

Masks For America is run by a small, intrepid team of grassroots volunteers putting together our skills to get N95-equivalent masks to every health care worker in the US and Puerto Rico. We are partnered with an FDA-certified manufacturer selling KN95 masks (an approved equivalent to N95 masks for use against the novel coronavirus) at only $2 per mask.That’s a fraction of what hospitals and governments have been paying for N95 masks.

Every cent of every dollar donated goes directly to the manufacturing and distribution of masks. We’re sending the masks to health care facilities who request them through GetUsPPE.org. Every person, including the broker, is volunteering their time so that the entirety of your tax-deductible donations are dedicated to providing safe, high-quality masks to our frontline health care workers.

For every $2 you give, you provide the kind of masks frontline health care workers need to protect their patients, themselves, and their families from COVID-19. Please visit masks4america.org and join our endeavor.

2. Be a voice for health care workers being threatened for speaking up about inadequate PPE.

Despite the high risks of catching the coronavirus if PPE is insufficient or absent, there are many health care workers (along with their brethren at front desks and environmental services) who continue to courageously serve patients. Hospitals and clinic systems must not take this selflessness for granted.

"We need the public's help to hold power accountable. Please tell your local hospitals, the press, and every elected official: health care workers need masks, not muzzles."

Yes, health care workers have a sense of duty. And yes, us doctors are driven by the Hippocratic oath. But none of us want to be martyrs. When we speak out publicly about the lack of PPE, we are calling attention to a public health crisis compounding the catastrophes of COVID-19.

Yet instead of supporting health care workers in their demands for adequate PPE, many hospitals are harshly penalizing them for speaking out. A hospital in Washington state fired an emergency room physician for speaking publicly about not having enough protective equipment. A Chicago-based nurse was also fired for expressing similar concerns.

As #GetMePPE and #GetUsPPE stories and images flood social media, our fellow Americans are learning more about the dangers of not having proper masks and other equipment to stop the spread of Covid-19. Upon learning these stories, some hospitals are sending “gentle reminders” to health care workers that they will face disciplinary action, including the possibility of job termination, if they speak publicly about their workplace conditions. Doctors, nurses, and their colleagues should not be stuck in the false choice of whether to protect public health or protect the public image of their employers.

We need the public’s help to hold power accountable. Please tell your local hospitals, the press, and every elected official: health care workers need masks, not muzzles.

3. Be part of remodeling America’s busted health care system.

Inadequate PPE for health care workers is just one injustice in our inequitable health care system. CEOs of insurance companies and pharmaceutical corporations continue to receive their multi-million dollar paychecks, but over 10 million workers just lost their jobs. In many cases, their health insurance was also ripped away.

Millions of people who have insurance are still avoiding medical care because they are rightfully worried about all the costs from co-pays, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket expenses. Insurance companies have stated they will waive co-pays for COVID-19 related testing and treatment, but what happens for patients who test negative for the virus and still need care?

"All of us have a right to health care regardless of what we earn, where we live, or what we look like. Now is the time to build Medicare for All."

We will eventually learn more about the long-term health consequences for survivors of COVID-19. Given that health insurance premiums are expected to increase 40 percent, is the reward for beating COVID-19 going to be financial ruin?

All of us should be outraged but not surprised. Our country’s so-called “health care system” is designed to prioritize profits over patients. That ugly truth is just more obvious during a pandemic. But we need more than indignation and cynicism. Now is the time to stand together (figuratively, not literally!)

As millions of people face economic hardship because of the coronavirus, we must stop tying employment or personal finances to health care. We must demand a more just health care system rooted in dignity and equity.

All of us have a right to health care regardless of what we earn, where we live, or what we look like. Now is the time to build Medicare for All. We can start now by having Medicare cover all health care expenses incurred by anyone in America during 2020.

Whether you donate to Masks For America, speak up about insufficient PPE, or join the Medicare for All movement, please find a way to get involved. You can be a hero for health care workers who will continue to do all we can to keep you, your family, and your community safe and healthy.

Dr. Sanjeev K. Sriram

Dr. Sanjeev K. Sriram is the host of “Dr. America,” an innovative podcast about public policy and health justice on We Act Radio. He also writes about connections between health policy, inequity, and social determinants of health. Dr. Sriram completed his medical degree and his pediatrics residency at UCLA, where he served as Chief Resident at the Department of Pediatrics. In June 2009, he earned his Master’s in Public Health after completing the Commonwealth Fund Mongan Fellowship in Minority Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. He currently practices general pediatrics in southeast Washington, D.C.

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