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Many Treating Coronavirus In Florida Still Lack Protective Equipment

Apr 17, 2020

A new report from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention says at least 9,200 of the nation's health care workers have been infected with COVID-19. Twenty-seven have died.

Most of the health care workers reported that their only contact with the coronavirus was through patients at work.

Officials believe the reported cases may just be a fraction of the actual toll COVID-19 is having on health care workers around the country. 

In Florida, nurses across the state have complained about a lack of face masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment.

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Martha Baker is president of a union that represents more than 5,000 nurses and other health care workers in the Jackson Healthcare System. Every day, the retired nurse holds zoom calls with union members to find out how they are holding up.

Though the hospital is operating at about 70 percent capacity and nurses have been shifted from other areas to help with COVID-19 patients, she says burnout is a real concern.

“I don't know what a warzone feels like. But to a healthcare worker, this is probably about as close as it gets. I think what kind of keeps them going is the part that brought them into health care, you know that they want to take care of others who are in need.”

Jackson Memorial has lost three nurses to COVID-19, Baker said. A nurse at Jackson’s surgical intensive care unit died in late March. A radiology tech and an OBGYN doctor also died after getting the disease.

“That’s three at Jackson that I know of,” Baker said. “Many more have been exposed and sick.” 

But it’s not because of a lack of personal protective equipment at Jackson. The hospital had a stockpile of PPE in a warehouse when the outbreak began, Baker said.

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It's the largest public hospital in the country and leads the nation in organ transplants. Those procedures require a lot of protective equipment and Baker said nurses have had all the supplies they’ve needed so far for the COVID-19 pandemic.   

“I keep checking with our members you know every time they need the protection equipment, do they have it? And the answer is yes,” she said.

That's not the case in other hospitals around the state.

Betsy Marville represents nurses in Broward, Palm Beach and Dade counties. The areas have the state's highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Marville said nurses at some hospitals have been asked to reuse their personal protective equipment.

"And you know any product that is designed to be disposable after one use and you're being asked to use it over and over again you're worried about is it effective?” Marville said.

She says the work is hard -- not only mentally, but physically.

"You work 12-13 hours pretty much you're wrapped in plastic, and those rooms are hot."

Some hospitals, like the UHealth Tower in Miami, offer hazard pay to health care workers. That's something Marville wants to see done throughout the state.

Nurses at HCA Healthcare hospitals across Florida also say they are being told to reuse personal protective equipment or go without.

The situation has caused the National Nurses United union to file complaints with the federal government on behalf of nurses at HCA hospitals in Florida and six other states.

Martin Peebles is a registered nurse at Largo Medical Center and the hospital’s representative for the union. Transparency from hospital administrators about protective equipment is a big issue, he said.

"It's as if they don't really want to concede the fact that it's a short supply,” Peebles said. “We're simply told, 'Oh, you don't need it for where you are.'"

In Largo, the hospital has run out of negative pressure rooms and has placed suspected COVID-19 patients in regular wings close to critical care units, Peebles said.

Several nurses have come to Peebles with complaints about equipment shortages and reprimands for speaking out.

"They just say, 'you will not wear this in the hallway' or 'you will not bring protective gear from home' or 'you will be written up’ or ‘if you're wearing anything unauthorized you will be sent to the CEO’s office.'"

Nurses at HCA hospitals in Central Florida are seeing similar shortages.

Louella Ellis is a registered nurse in the ICU at Central Florida Regional Hospital in Sanford.

Nurses there were being told to use the same N95 mask for five encounters, rather than as a single use, and store them in a brown paper bag with their name on it between trips into a patient’s room, Ellis said.

“My problem is you’re handling the outside of that mask every time you put it back on your face and you increase the risk of transferring that virus from the outside of that mask to your face,” she said.

Some nurses are making sure their wills are in order, Ellis said.

She isn’t living with her family because she doesn’t want to expose them.

“I will not go see my grandchild because I'm afraid that I work in this environment. I don't want to expose my family,” Ellis said. “So we're feeling isolated, alone. And, and afraid.”

In a statement, HCA says it’s following CDC protocols for conserving protective equipment - and has enacted personal protective equipment stewards to oversee distribution.