By Nick Brown and Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Amid growing shortages of vital protective equipment in New York hospitals, healthcare workers are desperately scrounging to find facemasks, hiding supplies from colleagues in other departments, and sometimes even pilfering for themselves.

The novel coronavirus has infected nearly 45,000 across New York, and more than 550,000 globally. Nurses in New York City were shaken on Tuesday, when Kious Kelly, a nurse manager at a Mount Sinai Health System hospital, died after being infected.

Nurses who would normally use masks and other protective gear only once are keeping them for entire shifts or longer to conserve supplies.

As supply chains break down or delay delivery of vital equipment, nurses say they are locking away or hiding N95 respirator masks, surgical masks and other supplies that are prone to going missing if left unattended for long.

“Masks disappear,” said Diana Torres, a Mount Sinai nurse. “We hide it all in drawers in front of the nurses’ station. We hide masks, we have to hide chucks for beds,” she said, referring to incontinence pads.

Jason Kaplan, a spokesman for Mount Sinai, said in a statement on Friday that it has enough protective gear for staff, but acknowledged the pandemic has strained resources.

“We are doing everything humanly possible to calm these fears and protect our staff and patients,” Kaplan said.

In a memo to staff on Friday, Mount Sinai’s chief medical officer said it had received a new shipment of 130,000 N95 respirator masks, doubling its supply. It expects another 350,000 more in the next 48 hours, Dr. Vicki LoPachin added.

LoPachin said Mount Sinai could ultimately need as many as 3.5 million N95 masks and 20 million surgical masks, and that right now, some units are better-stocked than others.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this has created fear and anxiety and anger,” LoPachin said in the memo. “For that I am profoundly sorry.”

Marney Gruber, a doctor who works in emergency rooms around New York City, is using social media to solicit protective equipment like masks and gloves, which she said started disappearing from hospitals in the early days of the outbreak – thieved either by patients or staff. 

Gruber distributes donations she receives directly to colleagues, bypassing normal hospital procurement procedures – not ideal, she says, but better than the alternative. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is talking about [using] bandannas and scarves” in place of facemasks, she said.

The CDC says homemade masks are not considered proper protective equipment but can be used as a last resort, with caution.

New York hospitals are increasingly being put under strain as the number of patients skyrockets. 

A resident doctor at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, who was not authorized to speak to the media and requested anonymity, said staff were subsisting on donated masks from family and those bought by team leaders at their own expense.

The resident admitted to pilfering some strong disinfecting wipes to take home, saying, “I didn’t take the whole carton, I didn’t think that was fair. I just put some in a specimen bag.” 

A spokeswoman for New York Presbyterian had no immediate comment on the hospital’s shortage of equipment.

A nurse at Westchester Medical Center, in the suburbs of the city, said before the outbreak it was routine for staff to lend supplies to colleagues in other units. Now, those colleagues have begun swiping scarce supplies without asking – prompting better-stocked teams to lock masks, gloves and gowns in drawers and closets. 

“For supplies these days,” the nurse said, “we have to kind of bargain.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown and Joseph Ax, editing by Ross Colvin and Rosalba O’Brien)