April 8, 2020

Lack of PPE hinders possible help in expected hospital surge in Las Cruces

A group of home health organizations said they could help with the expected surge of COVID-19 patients in Las Cruces if they could find personal protective equipment.

Adrian Rodriguez, who heads three home health organizations in Las Cruces and El Paso, said he has been trying to order personal protective equipment (PPE) but because of the severe shortage in PPE from national stockpiles, the lack of infrastructure has created a crisis.

“We’re not trying to get anything from the national stockpile,” Rodriguez told NM Political Report. “It’s not worth trying to get. Mostly it’s going to hospitals. At the same time, the majority of what’s in the national stockpiles has expired. The CDC has expanded the expiration.”

Related: State announces new public health orders to protect PPE supply

The lack of PPE available from the national stockpile has put Rodriguez on the hunt for the face shields, gowns and N95 masks needed to care for COVID-19 patients from private vendors. But he hasn’t had to look all that hard because private vendors have found him.

“I’ve been inundated with calls coming from China and India. It’s stuff we have to vet and verify it’s not an overnight company selling fake N95 masks. I don’t want to risk the life of my nurses,” Rodriguez said.

Nearly a full month into the World Health Organization declaring the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic, the lack of infrastructure means Rodriguez only has enough PPE to allow his organizations’ nurses to care for one COVID-19 test positive case.

The prices are also often marked up. He said he has seen a box of face shields that normally sell for $80 being priced at $200. He said he’s seen at least one local resident try to informally trade N95 masks for things like toilet paper through an app.

Rodriguez said the concept that home health organizations could help with the surge in COVID-19 test positive patients is informal and not directed by the state nor has he tried to reach out to state officials. But he said he has had conversations with hospitals in Las Cruces and El Paso about patients being discharged a few days earlier than they might normally for non-COVID-19 related illness to free up beds for the anticipated COVID-19 surge in the southern part of the state. Home health agencies can then provide nursing staff and home health workers to help the patients once they are at home.

“Hospital administrators are trying to free up rooms,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll take patients.”

Rodriguez said the organizations he runs could also take care of COVID-19 test positive cases with mild symptoms who still require monitoring. But the lack of available PPE prohibits that.

“We can’t take COVID-19 positive cases. We don’t have enough equipment. When they (the hospital) send the (COVID-19 test positive) patient home, a lot are sent home under quarantine. They go home and monitor themselves. If they’re older and need monitoring and checks on a regular basis, we could free up that bed in the hospital for the more serious case, but we can’t because we don’t have enough PPE,” Rodriguez said.

The two organizations Rodriguez runs are Crossroads In-Home Care, based in Las Cruces,  and Tender Care Home Health and Hospice, which has locations in both El Paso and Las Cruces. The organizations can send skilled nurses and home health workers to a resident discharged from the hospital. The organizations are also capable of providing round the clock care.

“It’s a tricky time. We’re trying to help but we don’t have the equipment to help. If anybody can save hospitals from the rush of patients, it’s going to be home health because we can take care of (discharged patients),” Rodriguez said.

Between Crossroads In-Home Care and Tender Care Home Health and Hospice, Rodriguez said he has a total of 340 employees serving 850 patients. He said the typical patient for the three home health organizations is 79 years old and suffers from chronic disease such as diabetes, congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, generally known as COPD.

“We are extremely high risk for COVID-19 for our patients,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez began an effort of trying to coordinate volunteers to make cloth masks for his home health workers to ensure that they don’t inadvertently spread the disease to the patients last month. He was also in conversation with a company based in Pakistan to buy cloth masks.

Since the volunteer effort began, which got started with a few volunteers and some YouTube videos for instruction, Rodriguez has since hired a worker who was displaced by the public health emergency to help with the effort. He now has enough cloth masks so that all of his employees have two masks to avoid reusing the same mask each day.

The order with the company in Pakistan did not work out, but Rodriguez found a company in Greece through a personal connection that was willing to donate cloth masks. That company donated 100 cloth masks and paid for the shipping. Rodriguez said he received those cloth masks within a week.

“I never thought I’d be in the sewing business,” he said.