Healthcare workers at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx are demanding more personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 outbreak to protect themselves and others from the virus.
Staffers say they are required to use one N95 mask per week due to a nationwide shortage of the specific filtered masks.
"With coronavirus, we're primarily concerned with the degree to which we're infecting our other patients, our other coworkers, and our own families," Sean Petty, a nurse at Jacobi, told Gothamist.
About two dozen healthcare workers protested outside of Jacobi on Saturday, demanding more PPE. Petty said the Trump administration should use the Defense Protection Act to ramp up production of the masks as quickly as possible.
"If in 1940, we could completely restructure the entire country to make weapons to fight in a war, then we could have the ability to restructure a couple factories to double or triple their N95 production," Petty said. "As of last week, that policy became one mask per week for nurses outside of the emergency department. That change is what I think really horrified us."
Last week, a worker at a hospital where nurses were wearing trash bags as protective gowns died of the virus. Ventilators and hospital beds—which New York needs tens of thousands of—are critical, said Petty, but a third component is the workers treating patients. And without enough N95 masks, staffing could become an issue.
"The lack of PPE is working against flattening the curve," he said. "You're setting yourself up for a massive increase in a staffing crisis."
Previously, Petty said masks were to be used once with a patient. Now, staff is instructed to use one per week, and only wear it when performing a procedure that would produce airborne particles from a COVID-19 patient—like intubation or providing oxygen. Staff has been coached on how to wear surgical masks on top of N95s to extend their use.
A spokesperson for NYC Health + Hospitals, which operates Jacobi, said their network of hospitals have adequate supplies, but acknowledged a nationwide shortage.
"We currently have the supplies needed for all of our staff, but are fully cognizant that there is a nationwide shortage of supplies," the hospital system's spokesperson Karla Griffith said. "Because of the national picture, we have taken serious measures to conserve what we do have."
Nurses' safety during the coronavirus response is a "top priority" and all healthcare workers who need PPE are "able to receive what they need," but the city's hospital system is pushing local, state, and federal agencies for more equipment, the statement read.
The hospital system says it is following city and state health department guidelines, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Petty says the CDC guidelines aren't adequate. Under the CDC guidelines, updated February 29th, measures for reusing masks are recommended during N95 shortages.
"This is not just a Jacobi problem and it's not just even a public hospital problem," he said. "This is a nationwide problem that stems from the guidelines that the CDC implemented early on in this crisis."
"To reuse an N95 mask prior to this crisis would have been a fireable offense," Petty said. "This virus is exposing exactly where all the weak points are in our system. We are going to need fundamental and systemic change in the way we do healthcare in this country."
An emergency room doctor at a Mount Sinai hospital says staffers had previously been provided one N95 mask a week, but now switches it out daily and wears a surgical mask on top of it between patients. He cleans his plastic face shield with Clorox wipes. At a press conference on Friday, president of Health + Hospitals Mitchell Katz said that hospitals have enough supplies through April 5th, but said wearing a surgical mask on top of an N95 mask is recommended in light of the "short supply worldwide."