Sonoma County nurses voice outrage over shortage of protective masks, other equipment
Santa Rosa nurses on the front lines in the local coronavirus outbreak are preparing for the day they may have to cut surgical scrubs into makeshift masks to protect themselves from contracting the widening infectious disease at work.
Others are leaning on family members to provide homemade protective masks fashioned out of cloth and filters bought online, multiple Kaiser Permanente nurses said Thursday.
That's how bad the global shortage of respirator masks appears to have become locally amid the viral pandemic sweeping the world, straining the supply of health care equipment relied on by nurses and physicians to safeguard themselves, patients and others from a deadly disease.
In Sonoma County, the shortage of safety equipment has prompted an outcry from nurses who are demanding better protective measures, including greater access to a tightening supply of respirator masks, and more information at the local hospitals where they serve as primary staff in the pandemic response.
Without proper gear, the nurses fear for their ability to protect themselves, their colleagues, patients, neighbors and loved ones at home.
“Nurses have become extremely frustrated and angry because there isn't clear communication. There isn't clear transparency,” said Deborah Burger, a nurse at Kaiser who is co-president of National Nurses United and president of the California Nurses Association, which represents nurses at the Sutter and Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Santa Rosa.
Nurses at Sutter Health Santa Rosa Regional Hospital have signed a letter accusing the hospital of failing to protect workers and demanding they follow strict state guidelines that call for them to use respirator masks - not looser-fitting surgical masks, and definitely not bandanas or scarves, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now is suggesting as face masks of last resort.
Those complaints echo criticism from local nurses at Kaiser Permanente and Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and come as nurses and doctors around the country are pleading for help dealing with a shortage of critical personal protective equipment, including respirator masks and face shields that can help prevent transmission of the coronavirus.
They are worried both about getting sick and being unable to provide care that's needed like never before, and about inadvertently spreading the coronavirus to others because of inadequate protection.
Burger, the union official, said she was aware of nurses sending letters to hospitals all over the state to follow California rules that are tougher than relaxed CDC regulations.
Equipping nurses with masks that are inferior to N95 respirator masks - so well known to local fire survivors - is like giving a garden hose to a firefighter facing a blaze or sending a police officer out onto the street without a bulletproof vest, she said.
“I keep using the word ‘obscene,'?” she said. “I can't think of a stronger word.”
A Sutter spokesperson, in a written statement, declined to provide specific information about how much personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns or gloves was available or how many hospital officials anticipated they would need.
“Our commitment to keeping our patients and health care workers safe never changes,” Sutter said in its statement.
The statement also acknowledged the shortage of protective equipment “is a significant concern being felt acutely by health care organizations across the nation, including us,” and alluded to “a number of proactive measures to address equipment needs while maintaining patient and staff safety.”
“Sutter's supply chain is working to secure additional PPE (personal protective equipment) from conventional and unconventional sources, including receiving donations from the community,” the statement said. “We are also moving supplies around the system to ensure all our facilities have PPE.”
The respirator mask shortage should be treated like an emergency, said Jaci Cederberg, a Kaiser nurse who volunteered to work on the floor where patients are being treated for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
Hospital managers have told nurses that, assuming masks run out in the coming weeks, they may need to sew surgical scrubs into masks, said Cederberg, whose account was confirmed by another Kaiser nurse who requested anonymity. Cederberg's mother, a seamstress, is sewing her a mask, and her brother, an engineer, paid $250 to overnight a box of masks from Portland, Cederberg said.
“I can't believe it's come to this,” she said, noting the county was still in the early days of an outbreak. “This is not even bad. It's going to get much, much worse.”