Ten nurses at a California hospital were suspended from their jobs after refusing to treat COVID-19 patients without the protective N95 face masks. The nurses at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica said they would not work their shifts until they received the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), the Associated Press reports.
Doctors and nurses have been on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic with limited access to masks, face shields, and medical gowns for weeks and months now. As a result, medical workers have reported getting sick at higher rates in their fight to save lives during the national emergency. Nurses at Saint John's worried that treating infected patients without protective equipment would put themselves and others at risk of contracting and spreading the deadly virus.
“I went into nursing with a passion for helping those who are most vulnerable and being an advocate for those who couldn’t have a voice for themselves, but not under the conditions we’re currently under,” said nurse Mike Gulick, who was suspended from work. Last week, a nurse in Gulick’s ward tested positive for coronavirus, which prompted the nurses to take action.
The hospital’s administrators reportedly told the nurses it wasn’t medically necessary to provide them with N95 masks, and instead suggested that surgical masks would be sufficient, pointing to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
While surgical masks can protect the wearer against “large droplets” of bodily fluids, N95 masks are the most effective at filtering airborne particles, making them the best option for healthcare workers who are treating infected patients. N95 masks were provided to doctors at the hospital, but when nurses urged administrators to provide them with the same protective equipment, their requests were denied.
That’s when nurses at Saint John’s organized a direct action, telling management they would no longer treat patients without a N95 mask. As a result, ten nurses were suspended without pay. After protesting outside the hospital, and with support from their union — National Nurses United — Saint John’s agreed to provide nurses with a limited supply of N95 masks.
“It’s a victory,” Chelsea Halmy, one of the suspended nurses told the union, according to PEOPLE. “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.” All ten nurses are now being paid but are not allowed back to work, pending an ongoing investigation by human resources.
The situation for frontline workers has become increasingly urgent. As of Wednesday, the CDC estimated at least 9,200 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19. Now, nurses are among the masses of health care workers who are taking a stand against hospitals providing a lack of PPE to safeguard them as they continue to treat patients suffering severely from the novel coronavirus.
Refinery29 has reached out to Providence Saint John’s Health Center and National Nurses United for comment. We will update this story as we know more.