Local health care workers rallied Thursday in downtown Buffalo urging federal authorities to do more to ensure those on the front lines have enough safety equipment during the Covid-19 crisis.
They urged President Trump to force companies to convert factories to make more ventilators, N95 respirators and other personal protective equipment, a power granted by the Defense Protection Act.
"The fear is, when the surge comes and the situation is dire, that we'll run out," said Patrick Weisansal, an X-ray technician at a hospital he declined to name. He wore a garbage bag over his clothes to show solidarity with workers at New York City-area hospitals who wore garbage bags on the job.
With experts predicting a surge of Covid-19 cases in the coming weeks, hospitals here could face a shortage of badly needed N95 respirator masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment, or PPEs, workers and union members said at the late afternoon rally in Niagara Square.
"I think that our employers are doing everything humanly possible to obtain as much PPEs as they can, but there's simply not enough to go around," said Mary Nowocien, a 34-year licensed practical nurse who previously worked in the Kaleida Health system.
Two unions with large health care memberships in the area – the Communications Workers of America and the New York State Nurses Association – organized the rally.
People took part in person and through pre-recorded videos streamed online.
Organizers urged participants to maintain social distancing during the rally, and many wore homemade protective gear to make a point about the seriousness of the issue.
Health care workers honked their horns as they circled the McKinley Monument in vehicles with signs such as "Please protect my mom and dad" in the doors and windows.
Hospitals and hospital networks across the country have scrambled in recent weeks to acquire respirators, gowns and ventilators as the Covid-19 crisis wreaked havoc with supplies of safety gear.
Catholic Health and Kaleida Health, the two largest hospital systems in this area, have turned to government agencies and private donors and have searched far and wide to find this equipment.
"Hospital supply chain systems are slammed right now, forcing us to compete for supplies, especially personal protective equipment, on an international level," said Jody Lomeo, Kaleida Health's president and CEO.
Their employees are going through more of this equipment to try to keep themselves and patients safe. Kaleida Health last week, for example, imposed a policy requiring anyone in its hospitals who is within six feet of a patient or worker to wear at least a surgical mask.
Kaleida Health earlier this week announced, for example, that it had purchased 1 million surgical masks to bolster its inventory.
There is enough equipment now, but that could change in the near future.
"I think this is just the beginning," said Alexia Christodoulides, a registered nurse in the surgery unit at Buffalo General Medical Center, who used to live in New York City and knows how Covid-19 has ravaged hospitals there.
She said for patients who haven't gotten test results back, she and her colleagues have to treat them as if they do have the coronavirus until they learn otherwise.
Workers at the rally also said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is relaxing guidelines for the use of PPEs instead of tackling the equipment shortage directly.
"And now it's not making it safe for us or the patients," said Jennifer Hogue, a certified medical assistant at a local hospital that she declined to name.
Hogue wore a thin plastic table cover as a gown, a bandanna over her mouth and plastic Dixie cups as a makeshift set of goggles.