Nurses at a Santa Monica hospital held a rally Friday to protest management putting 10 of their colleagues on paid leave for refusing to treat coronavirus patients without N95 masks.
Since last Thursday, Providence St. John’s Health Center has suspended 10 nurses who said they would not enter coronavirus patients’ rooms without an N95 respirator, which provides a higher level of protection than a surgical mask. About 10 St. John’s nurses have tested positive for coronavirus, three of whom work in the hospital’s COVID-19 unit.
Earlier this week, a St. John’s spokesperson said recent donations and deliveries ordered months ago have helped bolster the hospital’s supply of N95 masks. Going forward, nurses will be provided with one N95 mask per shift and disinfecting them for reuse using a system recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“Our nurses, providers, respiratory therapists and others working the front lines deserve the best protection possible,” said Sylvain Trepanier, chief clinical executive for Providence Southern California, in a press release. “We truly honor their dedication to our patients and are gratified we can ease their fears by reprocessing each individual’s N95 mask, utilizing approved technology.”
But nurses said at the Friday rally that they could cross-contaminate positive and negative patients and staff if they only wear one N95 mask per shift. They would also have to take the same mask on and off during a shift, putting them at risk of infection, said Harmony McGehean.
N95 masks do not seal as tightly around the nose and mouth after they are worn for several hours and disinfected, McGehean said.
“There remains a serious global shortage of these masks and conservation methods are critical,” said St. John’s spokesperson Patricia Aidem. “Testing has proven the reprocessing system is highly effective.”
Jack Cline, who has been a nurse at St. John’s for 20 years and was working in the COVID-19 unit when he was put on administrative leave last Thursday, said St. John’s management has told staff that the hospital has a supply of N95s but is refusing to disclose exactly how many.
Doctors throughout the hospital and nurses in other units have been provided with respirators, said Michael Gulick, a nurse who was put on leave on the same day as Cline. On the day they were suspended, six doctors told him they felt it was unsafe to work with COVID-19 patients without N95s, he said.
“They saw us only wearing basic surgical masks on an all-COVID unit and they were surprised and appalled as to why we were only being given that level of protection when they were … going into patients’ rooms with hospital-issued N95 masks,” Gulick said. “They said this is a very unknown and new disease process, and until there’s scientific research … to really conclude the best PPE needed for patients like this, the hospital needs to err on the side of caution.”
Cline said he would treat patients with any available PPE, including surgical masks — but only if the hospital was unable to procure N95s and did not have a stockpile available.
“We need transparency,” he said. “Show us how many masks you have and if I have to, I’m a nurse, I’ll use whatever I have. If I only have a surgical mask I would go into those rooms with that, but I’m not going to go in there if I don’t have to.”
McGehean said St. John’s has refused offers to purchase KN95 masks, a type of mask that performs similarly to N95s and is more widely available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists KN95s as a suitable alternative to N95s.
Friends and family of nurses with connections to suppliers have offered to sell the hospital tens of thousands of KN95s at between $3 to $4 each, depending on the quantity ordered, according to emails reviewed by the Daily Press.
A donation of 13,000 KN95 masks donated by the Lakers has not yet arrived, McGehean said.
Cline and Gulick said they want to return to their patients as soon as possible, and are calling for the hospital to put them back to work with either N95 masks or KN95 masks that they can dispose of between patients.
“I didn’t abandon my patients, I had six security guards escort me off the hospital property,” Cline said.