Linden Hills ER doctor: ‘I used a single N95 mask six times’

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. As the outbreak evolves, we will be checking in with the participants regularly. Read all of the stories here.

All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Parissa Delavari, emergency room physician, North Memorial Medical Center 

I live in Linden Hills. I work at North Memorial Medical Center as well as Maple Grove Hospital. I have a 10-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, and my husband is a high school teacher at El Colegio charter school. We’ve really loved the Southwest Minneapolis area. We’ve been here for 10 years now and I would say life was pretty perfect before all this.

Now it’s drastically different. My husband has been working from home and has been able to continue daily homeschooling with the kids. I have an older mother who lives in Edina and would come here quite a bit and help out with child care. 

My mother is almost 70 and has some medical problems, so we’ve been distancing ourselves from her. That’s been the biggest change for us. I try to go on walks with her once a day and FaceTime with her. The biggest challenge has been separation from loved ones.

Initially, the number of patients in the ER dropped significantly with people staying home unless they were sick enough to need emergency services, which allowed us time to prepare for what’s coming and get our protocols down. 

Now it’s starting to pick up and we’re seeing respiratory cases. A lot of the testing is backlogged, so it’s hard to know if they’re actually COVID positive or not. But it certainly seems pretty consistent with that. My biggest fear is that we’re going to run out of beds, ventilators and, truly, doctors and nurses — because we’re all going to get sick. 

A lot of people with COVID are asymptomatic and in places they’ve been able to test everyone, they found a lot of asymptomatic providers were still practicing and [probably] spreading to patients. 

Most of us now wear masks in every room we go to regardless of the chief complaint, so we’re not being a vector of spread. Any respiratory patients, we have full barrier precautions on — including masks, face shields, gowns, head protection. 

Ideally we would change these between patients, but that’s not possible. We’re already running low and rationing personal protective equipment. We have been instructed to use the same mask, essentially as much as we can. You worry about cross-contamination on the outside of the mask getting on the inside. We’re reusing face shields, meant for one-time use, over and over again. We’ve been running low on gowns, which help us stay fully covered so we’re not exposing the patient in the next room to the virus. 

A good friend is an ER physician at Hennepin County Medical Center and he’s been reusing the same N95 mask over and over again, using bleach to try to clean it. He has terrible asthma. It’s heartbreaking he has to go through that, not knowing if the chlorine is going to upset his lungs. But we have to conserve resources as much as possible because we’re running short. 

Yesterday, during one shift, I used a single N95 mask six times around patients with respiratory symptoms, who we have to assume could have COVID. It’s hard to say because the results of testing are not readily available. 

It’s actually difficult to breathe through an N95 for a prolonged period of time, so we take them off between patients. The situation is bad enough where every nurse and every doctor has a big paper bag. At the end of our shift, we try to wipe down our personal protective equipment and put it back in that big paper bag. Because we’re that low on supplies. 

Think about that! They don’t know how long the virus can live and be pathogenic on a surface and when you think you’re throwing all that protective gear in one paper bag overnight until your next shift, it’s a huge risk for people working there. 

At the trajectory we’re on, we’ll run out quickly, so I really don’t think we have much of an option at this point. 

I put a cooler in my front yard that says “N95 mask donations” and posted about it on Nextdoor. I’ve been getting a lot of donations. I’m taking what anybody has, like goggles, disposable gowns, gloves. People have been dropping off masks they have from construction projects. I get asked if I’ll take used masks, and I’m happy to take those. If we get desperate, we’ll dust off some dusty masks and use those too. There is a little stockpile of random masks in people’s basements.

It’s heartbreaking to me because I’m talking to my friends in New York and California, where they’re already running out of supplies. They’re having to make the decisions of whether to go to work and put themselves and their families at risk. One of my friends is a pregnant ER physician in California who is struggling with this ethical dilemma. I’ve been mailing some masks to her, because she would otherwise have to use fabric masks or bandanas. 

If we run out of resources, people are going to die. If we get inundated with patients, we just won’t have enough resources to take care of all of them, and we’ll need to make some difficult decisions about loved ones’ lives. 

I’ve worked in other countries before and there are often shortages. But I think I’ve been naive because I thought that in the United States this wouldn’t be happening. In a country with this much wealth, the fact that we don’t have a stockpile of masks and gloves and face shields is shocking to me. I don’t know exactly where the blame lies. It’s not difficult to foresee that a pandemic like this could have come here, so I’m very surprised we don’t have a stockpile of these relatively cheap items that are invaluable.

It would be difficult to plan for this on the level of hospitals, but we should have planned for it on a national level better. Hopefully we will going forward. 

The CDC had a pandemic committee that was cut during this administration. I think the mixed messages from the administration currently has really hindered my job. People are asking to be tested who have no indication to be tested just because they heard that everyone can be tested — and that’s not the case. There’s been a lot of misinformation from the top down that’s been very frustrating as a physician. 

I feel super fortunate. I have a good support system and, financially, I’m more secure. I have some anxiety over the battles that are coming and the lack of resources, but other than that, I’m really appreciative of what I have. 

I’ve been trying to text neighbors who are older and don’t have as much family around to see what we can do to help them. The kids and I went out and wrote nice chalk messages for people at higher risk who are homebound, saying, “We love you, we miss you, we can’t wait to hug you.” This is a good time to reach out to people around you.

Because my mom is at higher risk and does still enter our house at times, I am now showering at work and completely changing before I come home. Hopefully, I decontaminate a little bit that way. I’m not as concerned about my family, specifically speaking. My husband and I are in our 40s, we’re healthy, we have two healthy kids, so my anxiety for my immediate family is pretty low. 

I think of it more as a public health issue. My biggest anxiety is I don’t want to be where Italy was, making these horrible ethical choices about which lives to save and how long do you keep a patient on a ventilator. In Minnesota, so far, everyone seems to have been ahead of the curve.