Richmond Times Dispatch: Abigail Spanberger column: Our health care workers need protective equipment now

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, ABIGAIL SPANBERGER

We’ve found ourselves in the middle of an almost unimaginable scenario.

Over the past week, COVID-19 has spread across Virginia and in the Richmond area. It has taken the lives of our community’s vulnerable seniors as it viciously spread through a long-term care facility in Henrico County, infecting both residents and staff. As the representative for Virginia’s 7th District, I couldn’t be more alarmed by what we are witnessing in our own backyard. But at the same time, I couldn’t be prouder of the medical staff who are answering the call to service in this newfound age of extreme uncertainty.

The heartbreaking accounts of the fight to contain and stop the spread of COVID-19 at our community’s long-term care facilities and hospitals demonstrate the commitment of health care workers and facility staff to the patients they serve. But they also highlight the real need on the ground for personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies at our hospitals and our long-term care facilities.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been on repeated conference calls with our hospital administrators, nursing home and long-term care facility staff, and local health care officials. They are exhausted, to be sure, but they continue to fight around the clock to attend to the needs of the suffering and the vulnerable. They are keeping their promises to our neighbors and communities.

But they’ve also been clear — our doctors, nurses and nursing home staff need additional PPE, and they need it now. To keep serving patients and to prevent themselves from becoming future COVID-19 victims, they urgently require more ventilators, disposable gowns, N95 masks, protective gloves and hand sanitizer.

At the federal level, major steps have been taken to address widespread PPE shortages. This past week, I joined the U.S. House in passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This package includes more than $100 billion for our hospitals and other health care providers — including strengthened funding for PPE. The CARES Act also creates a State and Local Coronavirus Relief Fund, from which Virginia is expected to receive more than $3.3 billion in funding during this emergency.

But our medical staff cannot afford to wait patiently for these federal funds to be distributed in the weeks — or even months — to come. With each day of continued exposure and continued supply shortages, they literally are risking their lives. The federal government must come to their aid immediately.

On Friday, President Donald Trump invoked his authorities under the Defense Production Act to order U.S. companies to produce ventilators. This move was long overdue, but it’s nowhere near the final step in addressing critical equipment shortages. This administration must take similarly bold actions to order the production of PPE for our medical staff on the front lines of this crisis.

That’s why on Friday, I pushed U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to use his department’s authorities under the Defense Production Act to immediately facilitate the production and distribution of additional PPE to our nursing homes in Henrico and across the country that are facing acute shortages. With additional PPE, our region’s medical staff could continue protecting our neighbors, and our health care systems could prevent a spiraling situation in which they are overwhelmed by skyrocketing coronavirus cases and grappling with infected personnel.

In the days and weeks to come, I’ll be pressing the administration to coordinate immediate support to our medical professionals. In addition to PPE, we also need testing supplies like reagents and nasal pharyngeal swabs, because with these supplies, we can better understand where our region stands as we track the spread of this highly contagious disease. We also will be able to isolate those who are sick, even if they might be asymptomatic.

Central Virginia has never grappled with a full-on health care crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. We are living through a new reality marked by uncertainty, fear and anxiety within our health care systems and across our economy.

But in the face of a global pandemic, our health care professionals have displayed unmatched grit, selflessness and courage. We all should endeavor to follow their lead and mirror their example, because these are the virtues that will deliver us through these challenging times.

Our doctors and nurses have quickly risen to the occasion. In response, our government needs to do the same and provide them with the personal protective equipment they deserve.

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