On the Frontlines: Nurses Say They Need More Protective Masks and Gear

Emergency Room Sign at Staten Island University Hospital. © Enxhi Dylgjeri

Nurses treating COVID-19 patients throughout many of the city’s hospitals are reporting that they don’t have enough protective gear. As the virus continues to spread through the city, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that more personal protective gear, and masks are on their way.  For anxious nurses, the relief can’t come soon enough.

Reports of supply shortages of masks, n95 masks in particular, have appeared on social media and in stories from nurses on the frontlines of the fight against the virus. The masks have been in such short supply, many nurses report that they have had to reuse a single mask when treating several patients.

According to one nurse at New York-Presbyterian Weill-Cornell, for example, nurses at the hospital were instructed to sign a sheet after they received a single n95 mask in a paper bag.  They were then required to reuse the mask indefinitely. “We have to save the mask, not throw it out, use it day after day. Because apparently we’re not getting another one,” the nurse said. 

“They’re saying it’s going to peak in April and May,” the New York-Presbyterian Weill-Cornell nurse said, “and I’m so nervous because I don’t want to bring anything home to my father.” She lives with her family in their Queens home where her father is recovering from cancer. “It’s my biggest concern every single day.”

The rationing, so to speak, of masks is happening at other hospitals across the city too.  In a petition to President Trump, nurses at Staten Island University Hospital pleaded: “This is such a breach in proper procedure and a complete injustice to the patients, medical staff, nursing staff, and quite frankly, the community at large. Not to mention the innocent families we, as health care providers, have at home. Who cares for them when we get sick?” The petition currently has 855 signatures out of the 1,000 signature goal.

Social media has been flooded with stories of a lack of supplies too. “Wear. Bleach. Repeat.” read one tweet with an image of an n95 mask before being cleaned for reuse. And on Facebook, a New York nurse shared an image of herself covered head to toe in plastic bags. The caption read: “I must also keep my family safe. I’m using Hefty bags to protect my head and legs.”

The nurses’ complaints are not unwarranted. Amidst this crisis, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health tasked with researching and providing guidance for workplace safety, advises hospitals and workers to dispose of n95 masks “following close contact with, or exit from, the care area of any patient co-infected with an infectious disease requiring contact precautions.” 

Hospitals across the country have also been asking for more supplies to tackle the influx of patients, particularly more PPE (personal protective equipment). The hashtag #GiveUsPPE has been trending on all social media with personal stories from healthcare staff of the makeshift ways they’ve dealt with the shortage.  

Their fears are justified. On Tuesday, Kious Kelly, 48, an assistant nursing manager at Mount Sinai West passed from COVID19. He was admitted to Mount Sinai’s flagship hospital two weeks ago after testing positive. Coworkers posted a tribute: “It’s a shame that your life is cut short. This did not need to happen, you did not have to die. Kious is a life-force multiplier. He is full of life days ago and today he is gone.” 

In his briefing on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo assured hospitals and staff that they will soon have enough protective equipment. “Right now. we have enough protective equipment for all the hospitals dealing with it,” he said.  “Today, no hospital, no doctor, no nurse can say legitimately ‘I don’t have protective equipment.’”

This story has been updated due to an editing error.  The petition from the nurses was addressed to President Trump not the president of the hospital. We apologize for the mistake.