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The California nurses said that their hospital did not think the protective masks were necessary, and would not provide them

By Julie Mazziotta
April 16, 2020 02:44 PM
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Nurses protest
Credit: Lizabeth Baker Wade via AP

Nurses at a California hospital who were not given N95 masks to treat COVID-19 patients were suspended for refusing to work their shifts until they received proper protection, the Associated Press reported.

The nurses at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica said that they were not given N95 masks — only surgical masks — because hospital administrators did not believe it was necessary.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, surgical masks can protect against “large droplets” of bodily fluids but are “not considered respiratory protection” — something that is essential when treating patients with the new coronavirus, COVID-19. Instead, N95 respirator masks are the best option, as they filter out “at least 95 percent of airborne particles.”

Nurses at Saint John’s said that they tried to argue for N95 masks, which were provided to the doctors on staff, but administrators refused their requests. Then, last week, one of the nurses tested positive for COVID-19, the AP reported. A day later, the nurses were reprimanded by doctors at the hospital who said that they should be wearing N95 masks.

That was the final straw for a group of the nurses, who told their managers they would not treat COVID-19 patients until they had proper protection. The hospital then suspended 10 of the nurses without pay.

After the nurses organized a protest outside the hospital, Saint John’s agreed to start giving nurses a limited supply of N95 masks on Tuesday. The 10 suspended nurses are now getting paid again but will not be allowed to go back to work until human resources investigates the incident, according to the National Nurses Union.

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“It’s a victory,” Chelsea Halmy, a medical-surgical nurse at Saint John’s who is one of the suspended nurses, told the union. “They’re finally doing what they should have been doing in the first place. We are glad, but it’s upsetting that it had to come to this point and that our safety wasn’t their first priority. We still have so much more work to do.”

PEOPLE has contacted Saint John’s for comment. The hospital told the AP that all nurses working with COVID-19 patients will receive N95 masks and that they are disinfecting the masks every day (the CDC typically recommends that they be “discarded after every patient encounter” or whenever they become wet or contaminated, however they have loosened their recommendations for hospitals in crisis conditions due to extensive shortages).

“It is no secret there is a national shortage,” the hospital told the AP in a statement.

The suspended nurses said that Saint John’s still needs to do more to protect their staff.

“We want the hospital to sit down with us and resolve our remaining concerns,” Jack Cline, another suspended nurse told the union. “Our suggestions are always for the safety of nurses, of patients, and ultimately of the hospital.”

And Angela Gatdula, the nurse who tested positive for COVID-19, told the AP that she’s recovering and hopes to get back to work next week, but that “the next nurse that gets this might not be lucky. They might require hospitalization. They might die.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.