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Theft of masks, sanitizer at Naval Medical Center San Diego lead to bag checks for staff

Naval Medical Center San Diego (Alfred Twu/WikiCommons)

Sailors and civilian staff at Naval Medical Center San Diego are undergoing random bag checks after a supply locker was recently broken into and raided, a Navy official said.

In addition to the break-in, other supplies also have gone missing from the medical center in Balboa Park.

The thefts come as shortages of medical personal protective equipment have been reported at hospitals nationwide, although the Navy says it is not experiencing a shortage of equipment.

“Unfortunately, due to the actions of a few, certain supplies, such as masks and hand sanitizer, have gone missing from the medical center,” said Regena Kowitz, a Naval Medical Forces Pacific spokeswoman.

“The decision to conduct random baggage checks for all who exit the campus was not a decision we made lightly, but felt it was necessary to prevent further loss of supplies needed for the protection of our precious workforce.”

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Kowitz said the medical center has adequate supplies of protective equipment for its staff.

The hospital is one of two military medical facilities in San Diego County seeing service members seeking treatment and testing for COVID-19. The other is Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton.

One Naval Medical Center San Diego sailor, currently deployed on the hospital ship Mercy, said staffers at the hospital rotated through working at the COVID-19 screening area before deploying on the ship March 23.

The Union-Tribune is not using sailors’ names who said they fear reprisal from Navy leaders.

A sailor attached to the medical treatment facility on board Mercy tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday and has since been removed from the ship, according to a Navy spokeswoman.

An additional 30 sailors also left the Mercy after a contact investigation revealed they had been in close contact with the sailor, said Lt. Rochelle Rieger, a 3rd Fleet spokeswoman.

The 30 sailors are in self-isolation in the Los Angeles area and will return to duty on board the ship after a 14-day quarantine, Rieger said, assuming none develop COVID-19 symptoms.

Kowitz confirmed that medical staff from other areas of the hospital are rotating through the COVID-19 screening area, which is near the hospital’s emergency room, but she did not say whether any were later deployed on Mercy.

Protective gear is also a concern on board the ship, the Mercy sailor said, adding that medical providers there are re-using N95 masks and have been told to continue using them until it becomes difficult to breathe.

Cmdr. John Fage, a 3rd Fleet spokesman, denied sailors were told that.

A photo provided to the Union-Tribune shows N95 masks stored in plastic bags with sailors’ names on them.

According to the World Health Organization, the novel coronavirus can survive on surfaces for a few hours up to several days, although more research is needed.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against reusing N95 masks in certain conditions, including if a health care worker is treating someone with an infectious disease “requiring contact precautions.”

The CDC says health care centers should take several actions to limit the potential surface contamination of N95 respirators. And if health workers must reuse the masks, the CDC says to “hang used respirators in a designated storage area or keep them in a clean, breathable container, such as a paper bag between uses.”

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© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune