By Nicole Nixon
Health care workers are protesting downgraded guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week for people caring for COVID-19 patients due to a shortage of N95 respirator masks.
The special masks filter 95% of airborne particles and must be specially fitted to the wearer in order to be effective. But since the coronavirus is believed to be transmitted via respiratory droplets spread through close contact, coughing or sneezing, the CDC says surgical masks are an acceptable alternative “when the supply chain of respirators cannot meet the demand.”
However, the updated guidelines say respirators “are preferred” and should be used if available. Health workers should also use gowns, gloves and eye protection when working with patients diagnosed with or suspected of having the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Health care workers say hospitals should take every precaution to protect their frontline employees in the midst of an outbreak.
“If nurses aren’t safe, our patients aren’t safe,” said Robin Cole, an emergency room nurse at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento. She and other nurses were protesting outside the hospital on Wednesday.
“If we can’t protect ourselves against infectious diseases, then we become carriers of those infectious diseases,” she said.
More than a dozen unions representing nurses, teachers and other workers across the country sent a letter to the CDC urging high standards for personal protective equipment in order to keep workers safe.
“We are strongly opposed to any measures that fail to provide optimal protection and infection control standards,” the March 6 letter read. “Now is the time to use every possible tool available to guarantee the highest level of protection … and preserve our capacity to respond to a widespread outbreak.”
California hospitals are “following the science” by adhering to the new guidelines, said Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the California Hospital Association.
Nurses asking for respirator masks and other enhanced protection measures are also asking for “a departure on federal and state guidance on coronavirus,” she said.
Coyle said California nurses working directly with coronavirus patients exhibiting symptoms like a fever and cough “need to be fully protected.” But for others who “may simply be working in the same hospital, the guidance now suggests that if you’re not exposed to the droplets, they — and all of us — can carry on” normally.
The California Nurses Association surveyed 1,400 of its members about their employers’ response to the coronavirus. The survey found that more than 40% didn’t know if their hospital had enough protective equipment or plans to isolate patients suspected of coronavirus infection.
But there have been “incidents of employee theft” of masks, which are now being kept “under lock and key” at UC Davis Medical Center, said spokesman Steve Telliano.
“We bring them out as needed, but we have plenty for patients and providers,” Telliano said.
Hospitals have defended their preparedness, saying while health workers may not realize it, there are plans in place.
“Hospital managers have large numbers of plans from multiple different scenarios,” Telliano said. “Those aren't always shared with the frontline workers until it's important to implement those plans.”
In a statement, Kaiser said it's committed to protecting its workers.
“It is important that all health care systems protect staff and patients based upon the science and evidence available,” said Ann Williamson, Chief Nurse Executive for Kaiser Permanente Northern California. “We understand the concern and will continue to support and engage with our staff as the situation evolves.”
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.