There’s a shortage of personal protective equipment in New York – and there has been for weeks.
On Wednesday, the New York Nurses Association, the state’s biggest nurses union, filed three lawsuits against the state health department and two hospitals, The Montefiore Health System and Westchester Medical Center.
In the lawsuits, the union alleged that the hospitals did not provide medical workers with the protective gear they needed, such as N95 masks, gowns and other materials. It also alleged that the state has been providing dangerous guidance to medical workers, telling them to reuse their gear until it becomes soiled. While Montefiore has yet to comment on the suits, Westchester asserted that it was following the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines, which states that protective equipment should be reused when supplies are limited.
"Like every other healthcare organization in the nation, we are managing our supply use and source pipelines very carefully," Andrew LaGuardia, a spokesperson for the hospital system, told Politico. "We are providing PPE to our staff in accordance with New York State and CDC recommendations, and staff have appropriate access to PPE."
Typically a new mask is worn each time a new patient is being treated, but the state is now asking hospital workers to reuse their supplies until they become soiled. However, new guidance doesn’t change the fact that reusing this equipment puts medical workers at risk.
Without healthy medical workers, the state would be unable to effectively treat COVID-19 patients and suppress the virus. Over 900 medical workers in New York City’s 11 public hospitals have tested positive, The City reports, and at least 26 have already succumbed to the virus.
“Inadequate and improper rationing of PPE results in nurses getting sick and further exposes patients to the virus,” Pat Kane, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, told the New York Post. “First, it brings an end to hospital policies permitting the reuse of the same N95 multiple days at a time – policies that are even substandard to the already loosened CDC’s (Center for Disease Control) ‘Crisis Capacity’ guidelines for when there is a shortage.”
“What the Covid-19 pandemic makes clear is that our inefficient, profit-driven health care system is ill-equipped to respond to public health crises, and it's costing countless lives,” Judy Sheridan-González, the president of the state nurse’s union, told Politico. “A functional system would have had the necessary preparations — research and testing capacity, appropriate PPE, ventilators and other equipment, hospital beds, and additional staff trained to care for victims.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, has continued to say that hospitals have the resources they need, glossing over the fact that this is only true if measured using crisis guidelines.
“Any hospital that is short, in urgent need of anything, we provide them with that material on a daily basis,” Cuomo said during a press conference on Monday. “We do not have any hospital that has said to us: ‘we have an urgent need for x’ that we have not been able to fulfill.”
“You can have employees in a hospital who say, ‘I don’t like this protocol, I don’t like what the hospital is telling me to do.’ That’s a different set of issues,” he added.
It has been reported that medical staff have had to resort to re-wearing masks and using ponchos and garbage bags instead of disposable hospital gowns. Just weeks ago, medical workers expressed concern that their lack of protective equipment would result in their own contamination, which is exactly what has happened.
“I had to use the same one throughout my whole shift, which was disgusting, because how can you disinfect a plastic gown?” an anonymous nurse told Politico. “That was very bad for me, where I was like, ‘I don't know how I’m not cross contaminating anything.' We had to wipe it down with alcohol and bleach and put it in a paper bag and put it back on.”
Chris Miller, a spokesperson for the city’s public hospital systems, however, has said that the state has enough PPE, it’s just trying to ensure that its stockpile of supplies doesn’t get depleted. “We’re trying to preserve the stock that we have, so we are asking staff to reuse them unless they become soiled." Miller told Politico.
Preserving your stock, however, isn’t the same as having a sufficient amount of medical supplies. And the lack of equipment provided to medical staff forces them to continually search for the supplies they need.
“Six weeks ago, nobody would’ve suggested reusing face masks and other PPE,” Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told the Daily Beast. “We’re now operating in the climate of crisis standards of care. It’s already started, and it’s something that we’ve always feared.”