Nurses File Complaint: Shortage of Swine Flu Masks
RNs from the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC) have filed an urgent plea with the state of California to step in and force Sutter Solano Hospital to provide nurses with proper safety equipment when they care for patients infected with the H1N1 "swine flu" virus. The nurses fear that the unsafe procedures at the hospital create a danger of infection for every patient at the facility as well as for the surrounding community.
The plea comes as nurses are actively caring for hospital patients infected with the virus. And with up to 10 RNs from the facility experiencing severe respiratory illness in recent weeks that their physicians have called "probably" the swine flu, many have been left physically unable to work.
The nurses requested assistance from the California Division of Occupational Health and Safety just days after the World Health Organization re-classified H1N1 as an "unstoppable" Level 6 pandemic, with the number of confirmed cases worldwide approaching 100,000, and 170 confirmed deaths in the United States alone.
Sutter Solano has purchased so few of the proper N95 masks that most nurses working with patients are unable to procure an adequate supply of disposable masks. The union has raised its concerns with management.
The hospital has supplied new masks that did not properly fit, making them useless for stopping the virus. Management responded by ordering the nurses to wear a contact mask on top of the ill-fitting N95 masks, but the nurses raised concerns because doing so can increase carbon dioxide retention in the mask wearer. Previously, management had given nurses a single mask in a plastic bag with instructions to re-use it repeatedly, rendering the mask useless for infection control purposes.
Compounding these problems, some rooms with infected patients lack appropriate HEPA filters, and proper isolation protocol is not being followed, with visitors moving in and out of contact with infected patients.
"Nurses will be on the front line of the fight against the H1N1 virus. However, if hospitals refuse to take basic safety steps to protect them from exposure, then infected RNs will be physically unable to continue working and may well become a vector for further infection. We nurses are shocked that hospital management is exposing us to this risk. It endangers every other person we come into contact with—our patients, our family, even management. This is not a time for finger pointing, this is the time for Sutter Solano management to do their job and provide nurses with basic safety protections," said Sherry Ramsey, a RN at Sutter Solano.
Hospital management has claimed that there is a national shortage of the appropriate masks, a charge not verifiable in any way: neither the Centers for Disease Control nor the mask's manufacturers have reported any shortage, and other hospitals are able to provide their nurses with this safety protection.
"Sutter Health is an outlier with their refusal to protect nurses against the H1N1 virus. They must immediately move to safeguard these nurses, because we have a very busy and deadly flu season coming up, and hospitals must meet safety standards," said Deborah Burger, RN, a diabetes case management nurse and co-President of CNA/NNOC.
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