ST PAUL, Minn. — A majority of union nurses in Minnesota say their hospitals aren't ready for a large influx of COVID-19 patients, and virtually all of those frontline healthcare workers say their workplaces lack enough protective gear.
That's the main takeaway from a survey of more than one thousand members of the Minnesota Nurses Association, which conducted the survey as the global pandemic began to spread through the state.
MNA president Mary Turner compared the fight against coronavirus with the wars that soldiers have served in throughout time.
"Now we have a new threat. And it’s the nurses and the health care workers that are marching into battle," Turner told reporters Wednesday.
"We need to have our government and our hospitals and the public do everything humanly possible to protect us, so that we can do what we are called to do."
In a press conference held in a large room at MNA headquarters to allow for social distancing, a half dozen acute care nurses explained the supply shortages they've dealt with and the conflicting signals they've received about how to make those supplies stretch.
"We've been passing helmets between staff members to draw blood and with technicians to do EKGs and ultrasounds," Kelley Anaas, an acute care nurse at Abbott Northwestern, explained.
She said nurses haven't been refitted for the N95 masks that ask as respirators but must be fitted to make sure there aren't gaps airborne droplets can penetrate.
The N95 masks offer more layers of protection than the loose-fitting surgical masks that are designed to protect patients from a coughing or sneezing nurse. But those are in short supply due to global supply chain issues.
At some hospitals, nurses have been trying to make those masks last an entire shift. Some nurses have told to keep reusing their N95 masks until they become soiled, according to Turner.
"This is a supply chain issue, and our care teams are worried and I totally understand that we are all together in this," Dr. Rahul Koranne, the president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association, told KARE.
He said the hospitals are working with the suppliers, the Minnesota Dept. of Health and the federal government to get more critical supplies funneled into the state. Dr. Koranne also said many healthcare providers are waiting to see how equipment will be distributed from the Strategic National Stockpile.
"I know that folks are anxious and worried, but I also know that Minnesotans will and should count on and trust the care team members who will do what we know is right."
The more advanced protective gear is also in short supply due to pandemic. Those include the PAPR, or powered, air-purifying respirator and the CAPR, the Controlled Air Purifying Respirator.
Both feature see-through masks attached to a helmet, with a tube for air supply. The PAPR also includes a disposable paper hood that drapes over the neck and shoulders.
"Right now, at St Joe's we have three carts of the PAPRs, which includes 4 helmets in each cart, so that’s a total of 12 helmets for an entire hospital," Emily Allen, a nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in St. Paul, told reporters.
"In ICU we see the people coding, we see the people on the ventilator, there’s lots of unanswered questions and we’re looking to our administration to get those answers."
Melanie Timpano, a critical care nurse at St. Joseph's, said she's worried there's not enough of a plan to trace which healthcare workers have been exposed to infection.
"We have scenarios where patients have been in the hospitals for days before it’s decided they should be tested for COVID, and then there are no processes in place to deal with employee exposure," Timpano said.
"Where are the health care workers in China getting their full suits? Why are we not trying to get adequate protection for our nurses?"
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