Tufts Medical Center operating room nurse Mary Havlicek Cornacchia told WGBH News on Thursday, “We are bracing ourselves for what we're calling a tidal wave of patients that will becoming hospitalized shortly who are COVID-19 positive.”
She also said if the supply of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, can’t keep up with a surge of COVID-19 patients, “it's like rushing into a fire with a squirt gun — you need to have the right equipment to be prepared. And I can say today that that is the case in most [Boston area] facilities. But how long can that be sustained?”
WGBH News reporter Mark Herz talked to Havlicek Cornacchia; she’s a union leader for some 1,300 nurses at Tufts, where she’s worked for 31 years, and a member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Mark Herz: Can you tell me what the picture is, especially with PPE? Because the things I am seeing on social media, and then what's going on in New York ... I mean, are your nurses safe? What do they have?
Mary Havlicek Cornacchia: I think in Boston area hospitals, we have the appropriate equipment. I can't really speak to all the supply status, but certainly we have things in place that are far better than garbage bags. I've seen those pictures of New York nurses wearing trash bags, that is not defense against anything. And to think that that's what they've had to resort to is just reprehensible.
I realize that this shortage started a long time ago and some facilities were good about ordering things ahead of this curve and others were not. The Massachusetts Nurses Association recently came up with some money to purchase PPE to be distributed across the state. We need to figure out how best to do that in the facilities that are in most dire need. You know, some hospitals are in much better shape than others, but I haven't seen or heard in Massachusetts of nurses having to wear garbage bags for protection. But certainly, the lack of appropriate masks for everybody that need some, that's still a real problem.
Herz: If you start seeing hundreds, or God forbid, even thousands of patients at Tufts Medical Center alone, do you have a fresh set of PPE — including the N95 masks and the gowns and everything — for nurses and frontline people to have a fresh set for every patient they see?
Havlicek Cornacchia: It's hard to know exactly. I'm not privy to the supply of any of the hospitals — that's just not made known to regular staff. And even when we ask from a union standpoint, they're a little cagey in their response. But, you know, I've been assured that we've had deliveries and that we're in good shape. And we take a step back and look at some facilities are putting masks on everybody that walks in the door. And though that would certainly be the most recommended practice to help stop the transmission, you have to wonder how long can that be sustained?
Herz: The other thing I've been seeing is the emotional toll that this is taking, you know, nurses are in closets crying their eyes out. Are you already seeing cases that are just really tough to work with?
Havlicek Cornacchia: We have seen a few, and those patients are sicker than sick. I know that sounds like a funny thing to say, but they're just so profoundly compromised. So it is hard to deal with. And many of us are in touch with friends, family, colleagues in other states and even in Italy and Wuhan; it's been heartbreaking to listen to their stories. And it's only serving to make us more anxious about what we might be facing.
Although, you know, as a nurse, we sort of signed up for this in some capacity, certainly not on the scale that we're seeing now. We just don't think about the what-ifs. We just do what we have to do.
We're worried about how much staff we can provide for what's coming in the doors. You know, we're going to be doing some creative, for lack of a better word, redeployment to help accommodate the influx that we're expecting.
Herz: And I would assume that would extend to doctors, too.
Havlicek Cornacchia: Oh yeah, it's everybody across the entire institution, in every institution. People are cross training, and we've asked retirees to come back — we're not the only facility doing that. Doctors are learning different specialties, and we're going to be enlisting the help of every person within the walls of the institution.
Herz: What are your nurses saying? How are they feeling?
Havlicek Cornacchia: Well, I'm not going to lie. It's, you know, it's anxiety provoking. What we're dealing with just in general … it's scary mostly because, it's not that we don't feel prepared as individuals, but how much do we need to prepare for? That's really what the biggest fear is: what's coming and how are we going to cope with it?
Sometimes the things that we take for granted and are considered, standard practice, that seems to be going out the window. We're trying to be as safe as possible, but even the Centers for Disease Control [and Management] relaxed the standard precaution guidelines, because of the shortage of the personal protection equipment. And that alone is very alarming to any nurse that you would talk to.
Now, the CDC, I've seen places where they say, ‘Oh, it's OK to wear a bandana,’ or ‘you no longer need to mask if you're going into the room of a flu patient.’ Well, that just goes against all of the standards of good practice that we grew up with as nurses.
Herz: I’m wondering how you are feeling?
Havlicek Cornacchia: Personally, at once frightened and anxious about the ever changing situation. But also I'm trying to allay other people's fears, and asking questions all day, and just trying to maintain a sense of calm so that the chaos doesn't suck everybody into a world of negativity, because that that won't help.
I'll be 61 in May. I was kind of joking with my husband the other day that I need to pull out the life insurance policy and, you know, go over a few things just to have on hand. Like, it's crossed my mind, I won't lie.
My daughter's grown. And so, you know, it is what it is. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow anyway — but this kind of a crisis where it's affecting so many people and affecting certain age ranges more than others, it is very scary.
Herz: So, what's your family saying to you?
Havlicek Cornacchia: Well, they're all worried sick. And I hear from people all the time, you know, ‘stay safe, be healthy, be as safe as you can.’
I have to have faith that that we're going to get to the other side of this and be OK. You know, all of us. I mean, people are going to suffer, obviously, but we're taking as many good steps as we can to try to deal with what's coming our way.