The state legislature recessed for two weeks on March 14 amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Four days later, Rep. Yadira Caraveo returned to work as a pediatrician at Peak Pediatrics, a pediatric practice in her hometown of Thornton.
In an interview with The Colorado Independent on Friday, Caraveo said there are about two dozen total gowns for both offices — one in Wheat Ridge and one in Thornton — with a total staff of about 30.
Before her latest stint at the pediatric office, she said face masks were changed out between patients. Now, she said, they’re being used for two days in a row.
Gloves, too, are in short supply. In normal times, they were used to treat any patient with flu-like symptoms. Now she said, they are used for swabbing patients, which is how samples of COVID-19, a highly infectious disease, are collected, or for treating patients who have a cough or sneeze.
What Caraveo is experiencing is not unique. As Colorado Public Radio reported earlier this week, hospitals, only just beginning to experience the anticipated surge of COVID-19 patients, are already seeing a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). That shortage increases the risk of infection to health care workers, which increases the risk they will not be able to work when needed most — weeks from now when waves of patients are expected to hit local hospitals.
On Monday, Gov. Jared Polis said the state is about two weeks behind Italy in terms of total COVID-19 cases. Doctors in that country swamped with patients infected with the disease are making decisions about who to save and who to let die.
“The supply chains are very crunched in the short-term with regard to personal protective equipment,” Polis told reporters at the state Capitol on Friday. “Soon this personal protective equipment deficit will be met. That is a matter of weeks.”
Said Caraveo: “The assumption is that we’re all going to get sick at some point because we’re not being adequately protected. … We expect there to be a health care provider shortage.”
“It’s a lot of nervousness bordering on panic,” said a doctor who asked to remain anonymous and who works at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He said he had a friend send him an N-95 mask this week. “I feel like I’m on the Titanic and I know the ship is sinking and nobody else around me knows.”
The number of registered nurses in Colorado is already below the national average, according to public health research.
“That does make Colorado all the more vulnerable,” said Glen Mays, chair of the Department of Health Systems, Management and Policy in the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
On Friday, state health officials reported 363 cases of COVID-19 with 44 people in the hospital. In Eagle County, a region of the state with the highest per capita rate of tested cases, state health officials said on Thursday they’re already starting to see a surge.
“The truth is, if we don’t commit to disciplined social distancing now, our 56-bed Vail Health Hospital will be overflowing within 2-4 weeks. We will not have enough respirators to keep people alive, and locals of all ages will be dying,” said Will Cook, the president and CEO of Vail Health, in a forthright letter to Eagle County community members on Wednesday.
“Due to the scale of this event, affecting all areas and all hospitals, we would expect shortages of any supply item that is commonly used in the treatment of COVID-19 patients,” said Jennifer Slaughter, the chief marketing officer for Aspen Valley Hospital.
Throughout the week, Polis has tightened social distancing measures in order to help slow the spread of the diseases so as to not overwhelm the health care system. On Monday, his health department ordered bars, restaurants and just about everything else closed to dine-in eating and other services. On Thursday, he ordered a ban of gatherings of 10 or more people and closed the state’s schools. And on Thursday night, he ordered the suspension of non-essential surgeries to help free up hospital supplies.
“This is hard for any governor, especially one from the private sector,” Polis told reporters on Monday. “But this is the overwhelming expert opinion, the scientific opinion. It is what will guide me during this period. … By acting boldly now we are saving lives.”
The governor, who has come under fire for how these kinds of orders affect the economy, has yet to issue a shelter-in-place order, which prohibits all non-essential trips from home. San Miguel County health officials issued that order this week.
State public health officials say they are still gathering data on the number of beds or ventilators across the state. The Colorado Independent requested the information on Monday and has yet to receive it. A story by ProPublica found that, in a moderate scenario in which 40% of the adult population contracts the disease over 12 months, Denver would be among the regions that would need to expand capacity beyond what it has already. The influx of patients would require 6,510 beds over 12 months, which is 2.9 times the number of existing available beds in that time period, the reporters found.
Denver Health says it can now test patients for COVID-19 and have results in 24 hours, which is about four days faster than state and private lab turnaround times. This allows health care workers to save limited supplies by not using them on patients who might be COVID-negative but still showing symptoms, Denverite reports.
Caraveo said she doesn’t want to return to the state legislature possibly infected. A fellow state representative has already tested positive for COVID-19.
“I don’t want to increase the likelihood that I will expose my colleagues or that I will be sick and that I can’t participate in the positions that I’ve been elected to,” she said.
Donations of personal protective equipment can be made at an event at the Broncos Stadium in Denver from 12-4 on Sunday or at HelpColoradoNow.org.