Shortage of protective equipment hitting home health care workers hard

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The global shortage of gloves and masks needed to keep medical professionals protected from the coronavirus is hitting home health care workers hard and has forced some employees to go without proper equipment or entirely unprotected, industry representatives and employees in Colorado say.

Across the state, about 30,000 workers provide in-home care to the elderly and other medically fragile patients, and have been deemed essential work while the stay-at-home order is in effect. Many of those employees are risking their and their families’ health to care for their clients, said Melissa Benjamin, a lead organizer for Colorado Care Workers Unite, a Denver-based group that advocates for home health workers.

While home health care workers may not be providing direct care to patients with coronavirus, they are working with residents who are vulnerable to it and the workers want to protect their clients and their own families from exposure to the virus, she said. Home care workers are also likely to be among the first to notice their clients exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, she said.

“To not have gloves and not have masks to protect (home health care workers) is not OK,” Benjamin said.

Shortages of gloves at retail stores have made it particularly tough for home care workers who have to purchase their own equipment. In one case a home health care worker made her own mask out of paper towel and a rubber band because nothing else was available, Benjamin said.

Colorado Springs home health care worker Scarlett Markus said there is a lot of fear and anxiety among employees in the industry that they might unintentionally spread the virus to clients or among family members because they don’t have the right protective equipment.

“I can’t imagine the guilt surrounding that, knowing you were the person to cause that,” Markus said.

Markus, a private contractor, takes all the steps she can to keep her client safe, but it’s been tough because she has to compete with the public to buy supplies. She uses cloth masks with filters sewn into them and she made her own hand sanitizer, when she couldn’t find any to buy. Her personal protective equipment, such as the masks, doesn’t leave her client’s home to protect it from contamination. She also changes her clothes when entering and leaving the home.

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Benjamin and Markus said they have heard some employers are asking home health care workers to reuse masks and gloves, which they say doesn’t properly protect workers and clients.

“How long is it going to take for more and more home care workers to get sick because they don’t have the necessary equipment because it is being consumed too quickly?” Markus asked.

Many home health care workers are doing what they can to slow the spread of the virus, such as taking their own temperatures before they go to work to make sure they aren’t going to work sick, Benjamin said.

If home health care workers get sick and need to be tested for COVID-19, they are eligible for four days paid sick leave under emergency state rules, Benjamin said.The paid leave does not provide enough time for workers to recover from the virus, but prior to the order home care workers didn’t qualify for any paid sick leave, she said.

Benjamin said she hopes classifying home care workers as essential leads to improved pay and benefits in the long term for employees in the industry who help elderly residents stay in their homes as they age.

“Home care workers are often treated as if they are disposable. … We need to treat our home care workers well so that we have them in times like these,” she said.

Those interested in donating gloves, masks and hand sanitizer to home health care workers can contact Benjamin at 303-589-8629.

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 636-0293.