10 California Nurses Refused to Work Without N95 Masks. They've Now Been Suspended.

"It’s upsetting that it had to come to this point and that our safety wasn’t their first priority. We still have so much more work to do.”
April 16, 2020, 4:13pm
Ten nurses at a Southern California hospital who refused to work unless they got N95 masks remain suspended with pay.

Ten nurses at a Southern California hospital who refused to work unless they got N95 masks remain suspended with pay, even though the hospital is now providing the masks to workers.

After one of their colleagues tested positive for coronavirus, and hearing from doctors that they should have better protection, nurses at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, went to management and said they wouldn’t enter rooms with COVID-19 patients unless they were provided better personal protective equipment, according to the AP.

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At least 15 nurses declined to take patient assignments unless they were provided with N95 masks, and ten of them were suspended, according to National Nurses United, the union representing the nurses.

Providence St. John’s is now providing N95 masks to nurses treating those who have COVID-19 or are awaiting test results, according to a Tuesday statement to the AP. The 10 suspended nurses remain so, however, pending an investigation by human resources, according to AP.

Read: These nurses had to wear trash bags as PPE. Now they have coronavirus.

Guidance from the CDC issued this month says that N95 masks are “preferable” personal protective equipment while facemasks are an “acceptable alternative.” After being told that a regular surgical mask would protect her, Providence Saint John’s nurse Angela Gatdula tested positive and fell ill; she’s now recovering.

“The next nurse that gets this might not be lucky,” she told the AP. “They might require hospitalization. They might die.”

More than 9,200 healthcare workers have contracted coronavirus since February, a CDC report published earlier this week found, with 27 deaths among healthcare personnel. But because just 16% of CDC records indicate whether the patient was a healthcare worker or not — not to mention the nation’s ongoing shortage of testing — the number of those infected is likely much higher.

The nurses in California aren’t alone in battling their hospitals and health departments over PPE access. The New York State Nurses’ Association union, which represents more than 42,000 nurses across the state, said Wednesday that it plans to file three lawsuits next week against the state Department of Health and two hospitals that allegedly didn’t provide nurses with adequate PPE, Politico reported.

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Chelsea Halmy, one of the suspended nurses at Providence Saint John’s, called the hospital’s decision to provide N95 masks to nurses a “victory,” but indicated the fight wasn’t over.

“They’re finally doing what they should have been doing in the first place,” Halmy said in a statement earlier this week. “We are glad, but it’s upsetting that it had to come to this point and that our safety wasn’t their first priority. We still have so much more work to do.”

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Cover: A generic stock photo of a nurse preparing an antibiotic for a drip. Photo credit: Rui Vieira/PA URN:10502135 (Press Association via AP Images)