Health care workers across South Florida are putting their lives on the line during the coronavirus pandemic. But, one of the largest hospital systems is now restricting the use of N95 masks for those treating patients with the virus.
According to the HCA, 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, which includes Kendall Regional Medical Center and Mercy Hospital, told NBC 6 Investigators that workers using Level 1 masks will also be provided with a full face shield and hospital scrubs.
The CDC guidelines call for these protocols to deal with supply shortages when a hospital is at crisis capacity.
The local 1199 Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents workers at HCA hospitals, sent a cease and desist letter claiming the company never told staff that they were at crisis capacity before implementing the new protocols.
“We’re the ones that are right next to the patient. We’re the ones that when they cough, they’re right there. If the health care workers get sick, who’s going to take care of the patients?” said Patricia Diaz, a union member and nurse working at a HCA hospital in South Florida.
Diaz worries she won’t have the protection she needs when caring for COVID-19 patients.
“I have no problem with going in and doing the job. But give me what I was trained to work with,” Diaz said.
The union provided the new HCA guidelines dated April 13, calling them “medically questionable.”
“Anger, frustration, fear, workers have expressed that they’re not willing to take assignment if their healthcare isn’t protected,” said Dale Ewart, Florida regional director for local 1199 SEIU.
Stacy Acquista, an HCA spokeswoman, responded to the letter saying HCA is in crisis capacity, as opposed to CDC’s conventionally or contingency capacity.
“The SEIU fails to recognize the reality all hospitals nationwide are facing, that this pandemic has strained the worldwide supply of personal protective equipment,” Acquista said in a statement. “Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we are taking steps to conserve PPE because we do not know our future needs will be.”
Acquista said the company’s hospitals were already providing Level 1 masks to staff treating COVID-19 positive or suspected patients.
The union also provided NBC 6 Investigators with an April 16 HCA East Division update, in which it is stated that 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.
NBC 6 contacted multiple local hospitals to ask them if they are taking similar steps.
Mount Sinai Medical Center declined to comment about its protective equipment protocols.
Stu Opperman, from Memorial Healthcare System, told NBC 6: “All of our frontline workers treating patients with COVID-19 wear N95 masks and all appropriate personal protective equipment. That’s also true for those working in emergency rooms with patients who present with flu-like symptoms.”
Broward Health also says it has not changed its protocols and is providing N95 masks for staff treating COVID-19 patients.
Baptist Health, the University of Miami and Jackson Health have not yet responded to NBC 6 requests.
HCA told NBC 6 Investigators that the new mask protocols will apply to the following local hospitals:
Northwest Medical Center
Plantation General Hospital
University Hospital and Medical Center
Westside Regional Medical Center
Aventura Hospital and Medical Center
Kendall Regional Medical Center