Nurses in the COVID-19 unit of a local hospital refused to enter patients’ rooms Thursday because the hospital has not provided them with N95 masks.
For the last three weeks, nurses on Providence St. John’s Health Center’s coronavirus floor have complained that the hospital has refused to give them N95 masks, which they say are provided to doctors, nurses and staff on other floors. On Thursday, eight nurses stopped treating patients after doctors they work with told them that the surgical masks they have been wearing would not adequately protect them from the virus.
Six St. John’s nurses have tested positive for coronavirus so far and one of them worked in the COVID-19 unit, said Jacob Childs, a nurse in the unit.
“Five doctors informed us that in their professional opinion, we should not enter the room of a suspected or confirmed coronavirus patient without an N95,” Childs said.
Childs said hospital management held the nurses at the facility overnight and Friday morning threatened to report them to the California Board of Registered Nursing and put them on administrative leave if they did not treat patients. Three of the eight nurses were put on leave, he said.
After nurses held a demonstration Friday morning to protest the hospital’s decision, an additional four nurses were put on administrative leave, a spokesperson for the California Nurses Association said.
Childs said nurses risk contracting the virus without N95 masks, which filter out airborne particles. Public health officials have said coronavirus can linger in the air for a few seconds and it’s unclear whether a surgical mask can prevent particles from reaching the nose and mouth.
St. John’s has a stockpile of N95 masks and received a donation of 13,000 KN95 masks last month, Childs said. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced earlier this week that he would spend nearly $1 billion to supply California’s essential workers with 150 million N95 masks and 50 million surgical masks.
The nurses on the COVID-19 floor estimate that they need 20 N95 masks per day to treat the eight patients currently in the unit. In the ICU, where there are about 16 patients, nurses are being provided with masks, Childs said.
“It’s not that we need donations, it’s that they have the equipment and aren’t giving it to us,” he said. “There’s absolutely no reason for them not to give us the supplies at this point.”
Providence St. John’s spokesperson Patricia Aidem said earlier this week that nurses are being asked to conserve their usage of protective equipment amid a global shortage.
On Friday, she said Providence continues to distribute appropriate personal protective equipment in accordance with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, Cal-OSHA and county and state health agencies.
“The safety of our caregivers is our No. 1 priority. We would never put a single caregiver in a position that would cause harm,” Aidem said. “Being part of a large health system enables us to deploy PPE to areas of greatest need, ensuring the safety of our patients and caregivers at all times.”
Many nurses are afraid that they are putting their families at risk because they don’t have the option to self-quarantine while working with COVID-19 patients.
One St. John’s nurse has been sleeping in her car to avoid infecting her immunocompromised husband, a CNA spokesperson said.
Last Thursday, Adam Smith, the husband of another St. John’s nurse, circulated a petition asking the hospital to provide hotel rooms for staff working with COVID-19 patients that has amassed more than 750 signatures.
In the petition, Smith said St. John’s would follow UCLA, USC and other health systems in Los Angeles County in securing hotel rooms for staff working with cororonavirus patients. He said the hospital could help nurses access a program Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday to provide front-line workers with free or discounted hotel rooms.
“(St. John’s) has been working to provide showers and changing stations for folks coming off their shift, and that is appreciated, but our healthcare workers should have access to lodging between shifts to mitigate the risk of spread to families and other high-risk loved ones who aren’t able to properly isolate when they get home to a small apartment or house,” he wrote in the petition.
Some nurses also worry that without widespread testing of hospital staff, they may be unknowingly passing the virus to their patients.
A nurse in a cancer unit who requested anonymity said she wasn’t notified that a nurse who had been in daily contact with others in her unit had tested positive until she pressed a manager to confirm a rumor that had been circulating among staff.
She said she left work for a week after developing a sore throat, headache and low-grade fever, but the hospital did not test her because her symptoms were not severe.
“It’s just being taken very nonchalantly,” she said. “We’re worried that it’s spreading through our unit, and we work with an immunocompromised patient population, but we were told it’s not necessary for us to be tested.”
This article was updated April 13 at 9:40 a.m.