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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mask shortage for most health-care workers extended into May, Post-Ipsos poll shows

A doctor at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx wears a 3-D-printed face mask in early April. (Ted Shaffrey/AP)

Front-line health-care workers still experienced shortages of critical equipment needed for protection from the coronavirus into early May — including nearly two-thirds who cited insufficient supplies of the face masks that filter out most airborne particles, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll.

More than 4 in 10 also saw shortages of less protective surgical masks and 36 percent said their supply of hand sanitizer was running low, according to the poll. Roughly 8 in 10 reported wearing one mask for an entire shift, and more than 7 in 10 had to wear the same mask more than once.

The dire shortage of personal protective equipment for health-care workers emerged in March as one of the earliest signals of the country’s lack of preparation for the coronavirus pandemic. Nurses and others have said they were forced to put their own health at risk caring for highly infectious patients because they lacked adequate supplies, in particular N95 masks, which filter out 95 percent of airborne particles.

Read full Post-Ipsos poll results

State governments and medical facilities went to extraordinary lengths to obtain, preserve, sanitize and reuse masks designed to be disposed after a single use if necessary. Health authorities asked a frightened public not to worsen the shortage by snapping them up.

The Post-Ipsos poll may provide the clearest nationwide measure to date of the shortages during those weeks, when the virus surged through parts of the country, overwhelming some hospitals in New York City and placing others across the nation under tremendous strain. The survey interviewed a national sample of 8,086 U.S. adults, including 278 people who work with patients in health-care settings, such as doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals and nursing homes. The poll was conducted from April 27 to May 4; results among health workers have a 6.5-point margin of sampling error.

“Covid hit like a tidal wave. We went from nothing to insanity,” said Ronnie Dubrowin, a certified nurse midwife from Connecticut who responded to the poll. “It was like one week no one had heard of this disease and the next week everybody had it.”

Dubrowin, who sees obstetric patients in two hospitals and one office setting, said masks were in such short supply during the early days of the outbreak that she resorted to heating hers in an oven to kill the virus.

“Getting protective gear was difficult for everybody,” Dubrowin said. “It became a mission of so many people in hospital settings to get protective gear for their employees.”

Despite shortages, 75 percent of the health-care workers said their employer was doing enough to ensure their safety. They also gave high marks to state officials, with 71 percent approving of their governor’s handling of the crisis.

They had much less confidence in President Trump. A 59 percent majority disapproved of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while 41 percent approved.

Nearly a third of health workers said they believe restrictions were being lifted too quickly in late April and early May. A slim majority, 53 percent, said state governments are handling the pandemic about right, and 15 percent felt restrictions are not being lifted quickly enough. Those views are roughly similar to those of the general public, as are the ratings of Trump and governors.

Long Vinh, a pediatrician who works in the neonatal intensive care units at two San Francisco-area hospitals and took part in the survey, said at the beginning of the outbreak some steps were taken to preserve masks, out of fear there might be a shortage. Now, he says there are no shortages of masks, gowns or other protective equipment at those hospitals: California Pacific Medical Center and Mills-Peninsula Medical Center.

“I really feel that being in the Bay Area, we were blessed and fortunate to have both a wealth of hospital capacity and resources and political leadership that took the crisis seriously,” he said.

Vinh said that while he had some concerns of an overall shortage early on, “I never felt like I was put into a situation where I might have a covid exposure where I wouldn’t have all the protection I need.”

The survey showed that more than 7 in 10 health-care workers expressed concern about exposing members of their household to the virus after coming in contact with it at work, and roughly half were regularly changing out of clothing before entering their homes. About a third said someone at their workplace has been infected with the coronavirus. A 58 percent majority said it is likely they have been exposed at work.

One woman, who works in a small, residential mental-health treatment center in Minnesota, said she and other workers are not provided masks, though they are seeing adults who come from hospitals and elsewhere and who could be infected.

The woman, a counselor who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss decisions made by her employer, said she is concerned about bringing the virus home to her young child.

“We have some capacity to social-distance . . . but with the size of our facility and the office space availability, I’d say 80 percent of the time that’s not possible,” she said.

More than three-quarters of health workers felt that people appreciated their efforts, and a similar proportion said someone has thanked them for their work since the outbreak began.

Just over 1 in 10, or 12 percent, of health-care workers said they do not have health insurance themselves. More than 6 in 10 have paid sick leave, though over 3 in 10 do not and the rest were not sure.

And the financial outlook for many is shaky. Nearly half of health-care workers, 48 percent, were at least somewhat concerned about paying their bills.

The Post-Ipsos poll was conducted through Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, a large online survey panel recruited through random sampling of U.S. households.

Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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