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Houston-area emergency nurse: Save the mask for somebody who’s sick or healthcare workers taking care of them

The local chapter of the Emergency Nurses Association president said the mask shortage is putting healthcare workers at risk when helping possible COVID-19 patients.

HOUSTON — Houston-area emergency department nurses are pleading with the public to stop panic-buying or hoarding surgical and N95 masks following 11 Memorial Hermann health care workers who were asked to self-quarantine following direct contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

A hospital spokesperson said that direction was given out of an abundance of caution.

"Wearing a surgical mask if you’re not sick or immunocompromised, really provides very little benefit. We’re not recommending that the public put on masks," said Kevin McFarlane, a Houston-area emergency department nurse and president of the Houston chapter of the Emergency Nurses Association. "Save the mask for somebody who’s sick or the healthcare provider who is taking care of them."

The World Health Organization says healthy people are hoarding or panic-buying the masks and other personal protective equipment such as gloves or eye protection, leaving health care providers without critical tools the CDC says he needs to stay safe while helping others with any respiratory illness, not just coronavirus.

Roughly 106,000 people work in the Texas Medical Center, according to VisitHoustonTexas.com, and including volunteers and patient visits, there are roughly 160,000 people going to the Medical Center daily.

RELATED: The latest: 11 Memorial Hermann employees self-quarantine out of abundance of caution after contact with coronavirus patient

RELATED: 11 Memorial Hermann employees asked to self-quarantine out of abundance of caution after contact with coronavirus patient

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"For emergency departments, this is just another day at the office," McFarlane said about how he feels treating potential coronavirus patients. 

"When patients show up, they’re undifferentiated. We don’t necessarily know what they have until they actually get there," he said.

The CDC has guidelines for health care providers about how to safely treat suspected COVID-19 patients so prevent staff and other patients from getting sick.

One recommendation says:

"Ensure that patients with symptoms of suspected COVID-19 or other respiratory infection (e.g., fever, cough) are not allowed to wait among other patients seeking care.  

"Identify a separate, well-ventilated space that allows waiting patients to be separated by 6 or more feet, with easy access to respiratory hygiene supplies."


The ENA released similar guidelines for emergency department nurses.

He urged anyone who shows symptoms of a respiratory illness, including cough, fever, or sneezing, to call the hospital or doctor before arriving, so staff can make preparations to keep the patient and others safe.

"It’ll hopefully reduce the chance of the healthcare worker getting infected," said McFarlane.

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