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Santa Rosa nurses rally over mask shortages, hospital policies on safety gear

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Nurses working at Kaiser Permanente’s Santa Rosa hospital and Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital say they face perilous restrictions on wearing N95 respirator masks that put them at greater risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, which includes the health care system’s Santa Rosa facility, faces a raft of complaints filed with state workplace safety regulators over inadequate access to masks, which have fallen into short supply recently as the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the world.

Nurses working at Kaiser in Santa Rosa rallied their ranks in protest Monday over new policies they say could get them fired or suspended from their jobs if they wear masks, even those donated to them by friends and neighbors.

“I’ve never seen such desperate times,” said Chelsea Carrera, a Kaiser nurse and union steward. “It’s very scary that they’re going down a disciplinary path.”

It’s unclear if any nurse at Kaiser has been fired or put on leave for wearing an N95 mask, which provide better protection against tiny airborne viral particles than looser fitting surgical masks or makeshift face protection, outside of treating a COVID-19 patient. Nurses want masks that provide more protection, and not just for their own safety but for well-being of the patients they treat during their shifts and the families and friends they see when they’re off the clock.

“We’re in danger without adequate personal protective equipment,” said Cyndi Krahne, the chief nurse representative among unionized Kaiser nurses, “and in turn we put everybody at risk if we’re not protected.”

Kaiser, in a statement, disputed the notion that nurses could face discipline related to wearing masks, including those they brought from home.

“We provide the appropriate medical-grade protective equipment for the protocols and level of patient care being provided,” Kaiser said in a statement. “We cannot assure the integrity of protective equipment not provided by Kaiser Permanente.”

Kaiser also said it was “paramount that our caregivers have the right level of protective equipment, and we are committed to ensuring they do - now and over the course of this pandemic.”

“We are grateful to our entire nursing staff for their dedication to our patients,” Kaiser said. “We understand this is a stressful time and we encourage staff to raise concerns. We are in this fight together and we remain committed to protecting our valued care teams, including our nurses who are at the front line of care, as we continue to ensure the safety of our patients and staff.”

The increasingly public dispute comes days after nurses at both facilities told The Press Democrat that they faced the prospect of grim shortages of safety gear at the hospitals as administrators braced for a peak in local COVID-19 cases.

Some nurses at Kaiser were told to prepare to cut surgical scrubs into makeshift masks to protect themselves.

Cal/OSHA sent a letter to Kaiser last week informing hospital officials of multiple employee complaints of failing to provide necessary equipment and use proper precautions when treating suspected COVID-19 cases. The letter notes that it is “not a citation or a notification of a proposed penalty.”

There were 29 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Sonoma County by Monday and more than 43,000 in the U.S. However, those numbers are misleading, as they don’t include the untold number of unconfirmed cases that haven’t been identified due to insufficient testing and carriers who show little or no symptoms.

Several nurses at Memorial hospital, who requested anonymity to avoid potential retribution, say colleagues who want to wear a respirator mask outside of clinical encounters with patients have been warned they will be sent home and told to stay there without pay. The policy applies even to nurses who are 65 or older or have underlying health conditions, both of which are factors believed to increase vulnerability to the coronavirus.

The nurses said they’d never experienced such a dispute related to masks before and face backlash even if they want to wear masks of their own or those donated to them by community members.

“I feel like we’re going to war without our protection, without our armor, without our weaponry,” one Memorial nurse said. “It’s saddening that they’re not putting their health care providers first, and therefore not putting our patients first.”

Another nurse said she started crying after learning that a co-worker had been placed on unpaid leave for wanting to wear a mask. Face protection at all times is important because once a feverish patient coughs in your face without a mask, it’s too late, the nurse said.

“All we want is the right to protect ourselves,” the nurse said. “Yes, you could get a sniffle, but you could also end up on a respirator. And nobody knows who’s going to get that ticket to go on a respirator.”

St. Joseph Health, which runs Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, did not comment by deadline on the nurses’ concerns.

So far, President Donald Trump has resisted calls to use federal law that could give precedence to any government orders for masks or other critically needed supplies. Spokespeople for local hospitals have acknowledged that the mask shortage is affecting their facilities.

In lieu of a sudden surge in supply, local businesses and residents have stepped up, donating thousands of masks, with still others stepping up to sew homemade masks. Jesse Rael, a radiologist at Sutter Santa Rosa, has volunteered to collect and distribute masks, and he can be reached at jesserael@mac.com.

Donated supplies, including new, unused N95 masks can also be dropped off at the Salvation Army, 93 Stony Point Rd., in Santa Rosa Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Interested corporate donors can contact the county Emergency Operations Center at 707-565-6038. Tyvek lab coats and body suits and bleach are also being sought.

Tell us

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at

coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

_____

For more stories about the coronavirus, go

here.

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