The shortage of surgical masks to protect medical staff from catching the coronavirus is becoming so dire that nurses at a state-run facility in Brooklyn were recently given instructions how to make them out of coffee filters should the center run out.
The facility, a 70-bed inpatient center for addiction treatment, is already on partial quarantine as a staff member is awaiting results of a test for the deadly COVID-19 virus, officials say. That individual reported flu-like symptoms March 10, prompting five staff members to be kept in isolation. Another staffer has since reported other symptoms and is also quarantined.
The state facility, the Kingsboro Addiction Treatment Center, houses patients with not only major addiction issues, but significant underlying medical conditions. As the disease has spread across the globe, killing thousands, experts have said those who are older and with underlying medical problems are far likelier to catch, and die, from the virus.
Medical staff is also at heightened risk due to their exposure to the virus, while millions across the nation now are told to stay indoors.
Spectrum News NY1 first learned of the developments at the center from a healthcare provider at the center who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals for airing concerns about conditions there. The source spoke with alarm at not just a mask shortage (there are “barely enough” paper surgical masks), but a lack of communication about life and death issues jeopardizing patients and medical personnel alike.
“You’ve got to communicate. You’ve got to tell people. And giving them a sheet telling them to make a mask out of coffee filters, that’s just not going to cut it. You should have talked about that two weeks ago.”
This person said the staffer who reported flu-like symptoms March 10 “suddenly disappeared.” The source also questioned the true safety of the quarantine in place since then because many who had contact with this person are not quarantined.
“Everybody knows, left and right, that something’s going on - it’s not just the nurses - the counselors, staff in general,” the source said. “They’re not making notices. They’re not putting up signs. They’re not communicating.”
Edison Alban, a spokesperson for Office of Addiction Services and Supports, which oversees the center said it has been in “constant contact with our providers regarding the spread of COVID-19, and we have issued guidance including how they can protect against the spread of the disease and how they can continue to reach their clients and ensure the availability of medication.”
State officials did not dispute the veracity of the flier teaching how to make masks out of coffee filters, noting that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recently talked about the acute shortage of masks. On Saturday morning, Cuomo announced one million N95 masks were headed to New York City, and another 500,000 to Nassau and Suffolk counties.
The coffee filter mask guidelines were handed out at a recent staff meeting, the source said, adding that currently patients are not wearing masks -- “and there definitely would not be enough for them.”
The document advises how to create a “field expedient substitute surgical mask,” with the assumption that staffers would bring their own coffee filters to make them.
The document was written by Dan Bersak, an engineer who said that he wrote it up as a personal favor for a close friend involved in emergency planning for the state.
“If it was me, and I had nothing else, I would absolutely wear it,” Bersak said in an interview, adding that the mask isn’t approved by a regulatory agency but rather designed “using my gut experience -- my gut instinct as an engineer.”
“That said I would prefer a N95 (mask) for sure. If I couldn’t get a real surgical mask I would get that. This is neither of these things.”
The shortage of proper masks across the country has been an issue for week; asked about makeshift masks during a March 19 CNN interview, Cuomo said: “We shouldn't have to go to scarves and bandanas.”
The agency spokesperson said officials are working to provide additional masks to the center and other OASAS sites.
It is unclear how widespread the document is spreading in state facilities. An email to spokespeople for the state Health Department wasn’t immediately returned.
The source said that many nurses have since called out, with staffing at a skeletal level and morale low.
A week ago, the source added, a colleague was laughing at a video of how people in another country were improvising protective equipment with shopping bags and scarves. “Well, that’s what we’re being asked to do here in the greatest nation on earth.”