More Patients, Less Protection Worries Frontline Nurses

NBC 6 Investigator Tony Pipitone speaks exclusively with nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

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One of the largest hospital chains in the area, HCA, is now cutting back on how much protective equipment its workers can use when treating patients with the coronavirus. 

The new policy has been in force for a few days and frontline workers are concerned.

“I’m absolutely worried about my safety,” a nurse from Aventura Hospital and Medical Center told NBC 6 Investigators exclusively. 

The nurse asked us to protect her identity for fear of retaliation. We will refer to her as Ana. 

“We’ve already had nurses who have tested positive and have been quarantined and even been hospitalized,” Ana said.

A nurse from Aventura Hospital and Medical Center speaks exclusively with NBC 6 Investigators.

According to HCA, whose network includes Aventura Hospital, there are new protocols for the use of protective equipment. N95 masks will only be used for aerosolized procedures, including intubation and nebulization, for patients who have or are suspected to have the virus. 

Other employees treating COVID-19 patients will be provided with a Level 1 medical mask, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not consider respiratory protection. 

HCA told NBC 6 Investigators that workers using Level 1 masks will also be provided with a full face shield and hospital scrubs.

Ana says she is worried because each nurse is now treating more patients with less protection.

“Currently, we are having to treat four patients at a time with COVID-19 and we’ve actually received instruction that pretty much, we have to go up to seven COVID-19 patients per nurse,” Ana said.

It’s a similar concern for two nurses treating patients with the virus at HCA’s Kendall Regional Medical Center. We will refer to them as Maria and Teresa.

We feel as if we are disposable employees to this company. They have no regard for the patient ratio that they are pushing upon us.

A nurse from Kendall Regional Medical Center

“We need to have less patients, so we can concentrate more on trying to do our job correctly, and take better care of these patients, than to have to be rushing from one room to another with six patients, trying to get everything done within our shift,” Teresa said. 

Kendall Regional didn’t address our question about nurse to patient ratios. In a statement, a spokesperson said: “Our focus has been on protecting our colleagues and ensuring our people have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) in the midst of a global shortage of PPE.”

HCA said it has to limit the use of N95 masks because it could soon run short of supplies. It notes the CDC guidelines that allow these protocols when there is a crisis capacity shortage, which the hospital chain says exists here. 

But none of the nurses we interviewed are convinced their hospitals are at that stage.

“From what I understand, from other superiors, we have plenty of PPE to go around,” Teresa from Kendall Regional told NBC 6.

Ana, from Aventura Hospital, echoed the sentiment.

“I don’t believe we're in a crisis mode, just because of the fact we were told not to expect any shortages,” she said.

The local 1199 Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents workers at HCA hospitals provided NBC 6 Investigators with an April 16 HCA East Division update, in which it is stated that HCA hospitals in our region have 29 days of N95 masks and that they are “diligently” working with the government and national partners to get more supplies.

The union has since sent a cease and desist letter to HCA in response to the new PPE protocols.

Kendall Regional Medical Center

As for the frontline nurses we talk to, they worry about what limited protective equipment could mean for them and their patients inside the COVID-19 units.

“We are only being provided five gowns for the entire shift and on the bare minimum, we need to see our patients at least twice in a 12-hour shift and honestly, it's many more times than that means we are coming in and out (rooms) with dirty gowns,” Maria said, adding she worries about inadvertently spreading the disease to patients who are not yet infected. 

“At the end of the day, we are here for our patients. We love our patients, and we want the best for them, and the conditions we are working under don’t allow for that,” she added. 

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