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KARE 11 Investigates: Hospitals moving to protect frontline care workers

Several systems adopting “universal masking”; but problems still remain and health care workers still fear getting infected.

MINNEAPOLIS — At least three metro-area hospital systems are making changes to better protect their patients and health care workers on the front lines battling COVID-19, following mass outcry by the workers themselves.

Allina, North Memorial and M Health Fairview have moved to universal masking, allowing all staff who work with patients to wear a surgical mask. That’s a significant change at Allina, said ICU nurse Kelley Anaas, and one she believes will do more to protect her and her colleagues.

"They recognize we are the literal front lines, and they can’t risk us getting sick and run out of us, because there isn't really a second line behind us," Anaas said.

M Health Fairview rolled out universal masking on Friday, while North Memorial moved to universal masking on Monday.

However, problems still remain, numerous health care workers have told KARE 11.

As KARE 11 reported on Sunday, shortages of protective equipment have seen area hospitals adopting practices that would have been considered improper just a month ago. That has front line workers worried they’re being put at higher risk of being infected.

Top among the concerns is that some doctors and nurses have been told to use surgical masks and face shields when doing routine care with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients instead of N95 masks, which offer the best protection against the virus.

While the hospitals are following CDC guidelines, surgical masks only protect the wearer from droplet contamination, and do little to filter out airborne particles.

“If we might have the virus but not have symptoms, we certainly don’t want to be sharing that with our patients, co-workers, and other people coming into the hospital,” Anaas said.

Allina said in a statement: "This policy is the result of very careful review of the emerging science and the balance we need to strike between continuously keeping our employees safe and making sure we have an adequate supply of PPE for when the surge comes, supplies of which there is a worldwide shortage."

M Health Fairview Nurse Modestus Okorie, who works at Bethesda Hospital, told KARE 11 over the weekend that workers were put into several situations where they felt unsafe, including continual reuse of face masks and hospital gowns they are fear are contaminated. Fairview’s metro nurses voted no confidence against their managers last week.

Okorie said Tuesday that nothing has changed.

Fairview said in response that the hospital is following CDC guidance to conserve its protective equipment.

"This includes gowns that are laundered and face shields that are disinfected between use. Face shields are worn over masks and help us preserve supply. If PPE is damaged or soiled during a shift, staff are encouraged to request additional supplies," Fairview said. 

The Minnesota Nurses Association said in a statement that a universal mask policy falls short of keeping nurses and healthcare workers safe "because it assumes that asymptomatic patients are not COVID positive."

"A patient could even be symptomatic but untested or unconfirmed positive, and this policy of allowing a simple surgical mask would still allow a caregiver to become infected and transmit COVID-19 to other workers and patients."

Hospitals say they are still in desperate need of safety equipment, and are working to conserve what they have. Allina told its staff to treat its N95 masks “like gold” according to a document provided to KARE 11.

For now, health care workers like Anaas said the universal masking is a strong step in the right direction.

“The more we can protect ourselves from each other and protect ourselves from patients who might have the virus but aren’t showing symptoms, the better off everyone will be,” she said.

RELATED: Minnesota Nurses Association asks for community to donate protective masks

RELATED: Amid concern for their safety, health care workers test positive for coronavirus

KARE 11’s coverage of the coronavirus is rooted in Facts, not Fear. Visit kare11.com/coronavirus for comprehensive coverage, find out what you need to know about the Midwest specifically, learn more about the symptoms, and see what companies in Minnesota are hiring. Have a question? Text it to us at 763-797-7215. And get the latest coronavirus updates sent right to your inbox every morning. Subscribe to the KARE 11 Sunrise newsletter here. Help local families in need: www.kare11.com/give11

The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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