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Health care associations fear lack of protection from virus

Posted On: Mar. 20, 2020 2:31 PM CST

N95 masks

A nationwide shortage of N95 masks and newly relaxed standards for personal protective equipment have workers on the front lines treating coronavirus patients and medical associations both praising efforts to ramp up production and protesting federal guidance over fears that it places them at greater risk of contracting the virus.

“We just do not have the quantity (of N95 masks) to deal with a crisis like this,” said Washington-based Eric Conn, founding partner of Conn Maciel Carey LLP. “As a result, we’re seeing things like people using them for longer than they should and people substituting the surgical or dental masks which don’t provide really any protection for the user.”

In a survey of its member nurses, Silver Spring, Maryland-based National Nurses United found that less than a third of nurse respondents said their employers had enough personal protective equipment available if faced with a rapid surge of coronavirus patients.

“If nurses and health care workers aren’t protected, that means patients and the public are not protected,” said Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, in a statement March 10. “This is a major public health crisis of unknown proportions. Now is not the time to be weakening our standards and protections, or cutting corners. Now is the time we should be stepping up our efforts.”

On Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee suspended all elective surgery and closed dental practices in the state to preserve personal protective equipment for hospital workers treating coronavirus patients, a move praised by the Washington State Nurses Association and health care worker unions.

This lack of equipment is resulting in workers being exposed to the virus every day, and a lot of potentially compensable illnesses when health care workers are diagnosed with COVID-19, said Joe Paduda, president of Skaneateles, New York-based CompPharma LLC.

The American Medical Association on Monday called for a “Manhattan Project-type effort” to expand the manufacturing capacity for protective masks, ventilators and tests, with the president of the American Medical Association, Dr. Patrice Harris noting in a statement Wednesday that physicians and other health care workers face “a dire shortage of the testing supplies and personal protective equipment needed to keep them safe and prepared to care for patients.”

On March 11, National Nurses United held a national day of action and has since held protests at various hospitals throughout the country for inadequate masks, weakened protections for respiratory specimen collection and insufficient isolation procedures.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association is pushing for additional protections, too, sending a letter to Gov. Charles Baker on Wednesday seeking additional protective equipment for health care workers, additional staff support, further curtailing of public transportation and more widely available testing.

“We have seen from the experience in Italy the high number of health care workers contracting COVID-19 when proper PPE and strict protocols were not maintained,” said Donna Kelly-Williams, the association’s president, in the letter. “All Massachusetts hospitals must act to limit the number of staff triaging patients by creating or erecting designated triage areas to segregate patients and to help conserve the limited supply of PPE.”

More insurance and risk management news on the coronavirus crisis here