“No Good Choices”: At the First U.S. Hospital Network to Knowingly Battle the Coronavirus, a Struggle Over Protective Equipment

April 21, 2020

Early in January, Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington ran an elaborate pandemic training simulation. Less than three weeks later, doctors and nurses there put what they learned into practice, when they admitted and treated the first confirmed COVID-19 patient in the U.S.

Now, the hospital, like many others across the country, has faced not just the continuing coronavirus outbreak — but also a surging need for personal protective equipment, or PPE, for its staff. And as the upcoming FRONTLINE documentary Coronavirus Pandemic reports, the hospital network’s leadership has taken matters into their own hands.

In the above excerpt, “desperation” leads Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips to roll up her sleeves and assemble hundreds of homemade face shields with her team, using materials scrounged from a half-dozen craft stores.

“I would rather offer our caregivers something than nothing,” the chief clinical officer and executive vice president for the Providence St. Joseph Health system tells FRONTLINE correspondent Miles O’Brien. “And at the moment, you know, if the choice is not having PPE or having homemade PPE, we’re going to offer them homemade PPE.”

As the top clinical leader for a 51-hospital network that employs tens of thousands of health workers, Compton-Phillips wouldn’t typically be spending her workday making D-I-Y face shields. But the struggle over PPE — her top issue throughout the coronavirus crisis — has demanded it.

“We cannot have our own caregivers going down from COVID while they’re trying to take care of the community,” she tells her colleagues on an early-morning conference call. Scribbled on a piece of notebook paper next to her computer is a quote: “There’s no good choices, only good decisions.”

That tense reality of “no good choices” plays out in the emergency department in Everett, where O’Brien’s team films as health workers are advised to re-use the coveted N-95 respirator masks they wear under their face shields, and to store them in paper bags until they’re soiled.

Bidding wars over scarce, potentially life-saving equipment have resembled the “Hunger Games,” say officials in the state where the U.S.’s coronavirus battle began.

“Because we’ve lacked the federal leadership we needed, it’s been mayor versus mayor, city versus city, state versus state,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (D) says. “Trying to get the access to the limited resources to protect our communities … all of that has become this ‘Hunger Games’ process where everyone’s trying to figure out a way to outbid each other.”

Gov. Jay Inslee (D) tells FRONTLINE he shares Durkan’s assessment.

“We’re searching the world for every potential warehouse that have any of this personal protective equipment… states are bidding against one another,” he says. “It would be much more efficient economically and otherwise if the federal government was playing a more vigorous role in that regard.”

For the full story, watch Coronavirus Pandemic. As the COVID-19 outbreak and the struggle for critical medical and protective equipment continue to unfold, the documentary is a sobering and illuminating look at how the virus first emerged in America, the U.S. response, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Coronavirus Pandemic premieres Tuesday night, April 21. Watch it in full in the PBS Video App and at pbs.org/frontline starting at 7/6c, or on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube at 9/8c.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

A Look at Colin Powell’s Legacy, Following His Death at 84
Colin Powell, who was America’s first Black secretary of state, died Oct. 18 at age 84. FRONTLINE traced his roles in shaping the Gulf War and then the Iraq War.
October 18, 2021
Shooting Not to Kill. This Utah Case Fuels a Debate That Frustrates Police.
If there’s nothing barring officers from shooting someone in the leg or arm, it raises a question many civilians wonder about: Why don’t officers, if possible, shoot a suspect there, instead of in the chest or head? It’s a question that frustrates and annoys many in law enforcement.
October 18, 2021
PANDORA PAPERS: Video & Major Stories From Our Partners
Watch the trailer for an upcoming FRONTLINE investigation into the Pandora Papers, exposing how U.S. trusts are sheltering millions in controversial assets, and read major stories from our ICIJ partners.
October 17, 2021
Former Boeing 737 Max Pilot Pleads Not Guilty to Federal Grand Jury Indictment
Mark Forkner’s role at Boeing leading up to the crashes that killed 346 people was detailed by The New York Times and FRONTLINE in ‘Boeing’s Fatal Flaw.’
October 15, 2021