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Remember nurses? They’re still on the front lines. And they still need protection

They’re still plagued by the dangerous shortages of personal protective equipment that so outraged us way back in March, when they were our heroes. And some of them get the sense that we’ve moved on.

Nurse Michelle Harris secured a mask at Brigham and Women's Hospital last month.
Nurse Michelle Harris secured a mask at Brigham and Women's Hospital last month.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

As we watch the case numbers tick down and our state open up, there’s something health care workers would like you to know: They’re still on the front lines of this pandemic, still taking risks they never anticipated.

And they’re still plagued by the dangerous shortages of personal protective equipment that so outraged us way back in March, when we celebrated them as heroes.

Some of them get the sense that we’ve moved on.

“For a long time it was, ‘Yay for health care workers!”’ said Lisa Mancuso, a nurse in the COVID ICU at St Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, who tested positive for the virus recently. “But now people are sick of it. … It’s summer now, and they want to know when they can go to Maine.”

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In Brighton, however, as in facilities across Massachusetts and the country, nurses, doctors, and others are working with equipment that would have been garbage just four months ago: Where they once switched out masks between patients, they must now wear the same one for 12-hour shifts; gowns whose reuse would have been considered a senseless risk a few months ago must be cleaned and deployed multiple times.

Notwithstanding baseless declarations of victory at the White House, the supply chain is still a disaster. States and individual facilities are still scrambling to lay hands on enough masks, gowns, sanitizer, and gloves to keep those caring for coronavirus patients safe.

“We are still seeing tens of thousands of requests for PPE per week, and we are still unable to fulfill them all,” said Megan Ranney, an ER physician in Rhode Island and co-founder of #GetUsPPE, a national nonprofit that matches donated PPE to health care workers in need. That includes facilities in Massachusetts.

Ranney’s group shouldn’t have to exist in the first place, let alone be inundated with supply requests 10 weeks into a pandemic the federal government knew was coming.

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And we shouldn’t have gotten used to the notion of reusing PPE, when it is in fact deeply alarming. They’re reusing gowns at St Elizabeth’s, even though the for-profit company that owns the hospital, Steward Healthcare, made a splash donating 50,000 gowns to underserved cities and towns two weeks ago, a move praised by Governor Charlie Baker.

“That was a kick in the teeth,” said Jennifer Sparks, a critical care nurse in the ICU. “How could they donate gowns when we were reusing ours? How dare they?”

In an e-mail, a Steward spokesman said the gowns were given to hospitals in desperate need of them and only after it was clear that a recent shipment left the company with an excess supply of gowns. So why are nurses at St Elizabeth’s still reusing theirs? He said “the policy change is in the process of being rolled out.”

Roll faster, Steward.

Having watched the pandemic play out in China and Italy, Sparks knew how dangerous her work in the ICU had become as soon as the first cases appeared at St Elizabeth’s. She sent her two youngest children to stay with their father and has seen them only once in more than two months.

The national supply debacle has blown through basic safety standards. After it became clear that the federal government was not going to help states provide the equipment workers needed, hospitals began cleaning and reusing N95 masks, which filter the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. Sparks’s union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, has balked at using the decontaminated masks, as have others, arguing that there isn’t enough evidence that they’re safe.

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Sparks fell very ill with COVID-19 around Mother’s Day and was hospitalized for a few days last week. She is still coughing, and short of breath.

“If we had been given N95 masks and used them as they were intended I would never have been hospitalized,” Sparks said.

A second surge in coronavirus cases — entirely possible here, especially given rising infections in other states that have opened up — will only further tax a supply chain that, while somewhat improved, is still a basket case.

That will force health workers to continue to risk their lives.

“The company knows we’re going to go in and take care of the patients anyway,” said Ellen MacInnis, an ER nurse at St Elizabeth’s and a union official. “Because that’s what we do.”


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.