Nurses at Santa Monica hospitals say they are being asked to reuse protective masks as they treat a swell of coronavirus patients and are demanding that their employers and the government provide an adequate supply of masks and other protective equipment.
UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica and Providence St. John’s Health Center nurses said they feel unsafe while treating coronavirus patients because they lack the equipment necessary to shield themselves and their families from the virus, echoing concerns raised by medical professionals across the country as hospitals run out of masks and President Trump refuses to order private companies to produce more.
Andrea Peregrin, an emergency room nurse at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, said as the hospital admits an increasing number of patients who have tested positive or are presumed positive for coronavirus — including some hospital staff — nurses are being asked to reuse masks.
“Up until this point, we have never been told to reuse equipment because of the huge risk of infection to patients, our families and other staff,” she said.
Peregrin said the hospital is operating under new Centers for Disease Control standards that say medical personnel can protect themselves from coronavirus with surgical masks or even bandanas, which block large droplets but cannot filter out virus particles.
While CDC officials have said that coronavirus is spread primarily through large droplets and is not airborne, Peregrin said nurses must be provided with equipment that prevents all possible transmission. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health Administration has adopted the same guidelines, she said.
“Nobody is 100% sure how it’s transmitted, so we should be held at the highest standards until we know exactly what we’re dealing with,” she said. “The hospital has the responsibility to make sure we’re safe, and we need the state and the federal government to step in and give us the gear we need.”
A UCLA Health spokesperson said the health system is asking staff to conserve protective equipment and is exploring how to sterilize equipment in case reuse becomes necessary. Additionally, management have communicated daily with staff about changes in protocols and information about coronavirus.
Peregrin said the California Nurses Association tried to work with UCLA Health in January to prepare for the outbreak and believes the hospital should have had a plan in place before Los Angeles County declared an emergency in early March. Peregrin said hospitals now need to plan for a shortage of staff in the near future as more and more medical personnel get sick.
“We had the time and didn’t utilize it, and that’s a shame,” she said. “We wanted any kind of plan and we didn’t get it.”
Jacob Childs, a nurse in the COVID-19 unit of Providence St. John’s Health Center, said hospital management is telling nurses the facility has an ample supply of protective equipment, even though nurses have been asked to use surgical masks for as long as 12 hours when they are supposed to be in use for up to an hour. Nurses are then told to recycle surgical masks into a bin for sterilization and reuse, he said.
Childs said Providence St. John’s management has said the hospital has a sufficient quantity of N95 masks but is not allowing nurses to use them. Nurses are being told to bring their own N95 masks to wear in hallways but not inside patients’ rooms, even though CDC guidelines state that nurses may wear their own masks in the event of a shortage, he said.
Nurses are also being directed to reuse single-use goggles because the hospital doesn’t have enough face shields, he added.
Childs said nurses have repeatedly asked Providence St. John’s management to clarify how many surgical and N95 masks the hospital has available, but the hospital refuses to provide information.
“Other hospitals are in the know about how much they have,” he said. “We don’t know anything. We’re completely in the dark.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that nurses are taking masks home.