Nurses suspended for refusing to treat patients without N95 masks

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Nurse Mike Gulick was careful not to bring the new coronavirus home to his wife and 2-year-old daughter. He stopped at a hotel after work just to take a shower. He would wash his clothes with a Lysol disinfectant. They did a lot of hand washing.

But at the Providence Saint John health center in Santa Monica, California, Gulick and his colleagues feared caring for infected patients without being able to wear an N95 respirator was risky. The N95 mask filters 95% of all airborne particles, including those too small to be blocked by ordinary masks. But administrators at his hospital said they were not needed and did not provide them, he said.

His wife, also a nurse, not only wore an N95 mask, but covered him with a second air-purifying respirator while treating COVID-19 patients at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center across the city of Los Angeles.

Then, last week, a nurse from Gulick’s service tested positive for the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19 disease. The next day, doctors on duty in the ward asked the nurses why they weren’t wearing N95 masks, Gulick said, and told them they should have better protection.

For Gulick, that was it. He and a handful of nurses told their managers that they would not enter the COVID-19 patient rooms without the N95 masks. The hospital has suspended them, according to the National Nurses Union, which represents them. Ten nurses are now paid but are not allowed to return to work pending a human resources survey, the union said.

They are among hundreds of doctors, nurses and other health workers across the country who say they have been asked to work without adequate protection. Some have participated in protests or filed formal complaints. Others buy – or even make – their own supplies.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not require N95 masks for COVID-19 caregivers, but many hospitals are opting for additional protection because the infection has been shown to be extremely contagious. The CDC said on Wednesday that at least 9,200 healthcare workers have been infected.

Saint John’s said in a statement that starting Tuesday, it will provide N95 masks to all nurses caring for patients with COVID-19 and those awaiting test results. The statement said the hospital has increased its supply and disinfects the masks daily.

“It’s no secret that there is a national shortage,” the statement said. The hospital declined to comment on the suspended nurses.

Angela Gatdula, a Saint John nurse who fell ill with COVID-19, said she had asked hospital directors why the doctors wore N95s, but not the nurses. She says they told her that the CDC said the surgical masks were enough to keep her safe.

She was then struck by a dry cough, severe body pain and joint pain.

“When I got the phone call I was positive, I was very scared,” she said.

She is now recovering and plans to return to work next week.

“The next nurse who receives this may be unlucky. They may require hospitalization. They could die, ”she said.

N95 masks have become rare in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
N95 masks have become rare in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.Reuters

As COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in March, the United States faced a severe shortage of medical supplies, including N95, which is mainly made in China. In response, the CDC lowered its standard for protective equipment for healthcare workers, recommending that they use bandanas if they lack masks.

Some exasperated health workers have complained to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“I … fear retaliation for being a whistleblower and beg to keep my name anonymous,” wrote a Tennessee medical worker, who complained that staff members were not allowed to wear their own masks. they did not directly treat patients with COVID-19.

In Oregon, a March 26 complaint warned that masks were not provided to nurses working with COVID-19 suspected patients. Another Oregon complaint alleged that the nurses “learned that wearing a mask will result in disciplinary action”.

A New Jersey nurse who asked not to be appointed for fear of reprisal said she was looking for a new job after complaining to OSHA.

“Do I regret having filed the complaint? No, at least not yet, ”she said. “I know it was the right thing to do. “

Some take to the streets.

Nurses unions in New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, California and Pennsylvania planned actions in their hospitals on Wednesday and posted on social media using the hashtag “PPEoverProfit “

Nurses at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fresno, central California, asked for more protective supplies during a demonstration during their shift change on Tuesday. The hospital, like many in the United States, requires nurses to use an N95 mask daily, which raises concerns about the possibility of passing the infection from one patient to another.

Ten nurses at the facility tested positive for COVID-19, said Kaiser. Three were admitted to the hospital and one is in intensive care, organizers of the demonstration said.

Wade Nogy, Kaiser’s senior vice-president, denied union claims that the nurses were unnecessarily exposed.

“Kaiser Permanente has years of experience in the management of highly infectious diseases, and we safely treat patients infected with this virus, while protecting other patients, members and employees,” said Nogy.

Amy Arlund, an intensive care nurse at the facility, said that before the pandemic, following the infection control protocols they currently use would have resulted in disciplinary action.

“And now it’s as if they threw all these standards out the window as if they never existed,” said Arlund. “It is beyond my skills. “

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