Mass. Nurse: We Need More N95 Masks

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Nurses in Massachusetts and across the country are sounding the alarm over a national shortage of personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, which protect frontline healthcare workers from exposure to the coronavirus.

Debbie Falk is an emergency room nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, which is part of the South Coast Health system.

She also co-chairs the hospital's nurses union.

Falk says for those not working in a hospital or other essential business, the best thing they can do to protect nurses, doctors and other staff is to stay home.

Interview Highlights

On how Falk and her team are holding up

Falk: Holding up pretty good. We have an amazing team in the emergency department. I've been there for 35 years. We all love what we do. And it's an honor to care for our patients, especially now when they can't have visitors.

Mainly concerned for our patients ... But we feel that we all want to have the proper equipment because we have the ability to prevent a domino effect exposing not only ourselves, but our patients, our community and ultimately bring it back to our family. Every day you wake up and you wonder, "Is today the day that we're gonna be exposed, are we gonna bring it home?" So there's a big awareness of it. It's not a fear, it's just really a huge level of concern.

Our union is strongly advocating for all of our nurses to wear the safe N95 masks. ... Several hospitals are following the reduced [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines for PPE [personal protective equipment]. They're having the nurses with surgical masks for a whole shift, rather than changing them in between patients, unless they're soiled, and only allowing the N95s for swabbing a COVID-19 patient or working with a presumptive positive [patient].

Fortunately, in our emergency department we are working with full PPE, but there needs to be improvement throughout the whole hospital.

On the protections in place for nurses and other healthcare workers at St. Luke's 

Falk: As I said, in the emergency room, [management] has done very well by us. Throughout the hospital — at least at St. Luke's — we have three floors that are designated for COVID-19 patients. Some of our nurses do have N95s, but not consistently. Fortunately, we are working with management on a regular basis and we're constantly looking at that delicate balance between keeping our nurses safe while having enough equipment for an expected surge of patients. But like I said, we have to meet consistently because not all nurses are getting that consistent level of protection and they feel like they're being put at risk.

Some nurses, once they know a patient is COVID-positive, they are given an N95. But the danger is with COVID, people are walking around with symptoms for days before they know they have it. So those of us — and not just nurses — our respiratory technicians, our housekeepers, everybody that goes in those rooms, we're working as though we're being exposed every minute of every day. And it's scary.

Falk's message for the general public 

Falk: I think the public understands we're trying very hard to take care of everybody. And it would help us to help them by them observing the stay-at-home, unless it's really necessary. You know, some people think maybe a quick trip out would be OK or to see a couple of friends here and there. But it really just puts, not only us at risk, but them as well.

This segment aired on April 5, 2020.


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