UCI Nurses Allege They Run Risk of COVID-19 Infection Because They are Told to Conserve Masks

Story by Larry Altman

About 35 nurses protested Friday outside UCI Medical Center in Orange, charging that they are risking their lives on the frontline against the COVID-19 outbreak because they are told to not wear surgical masks throughout their shifts and don’t have easy access to more protective N95 masks.

The protest, by the California Nurses Association in conjunction with National Nurses United, also demanded that President Donald Trump fully invoke the Defense Production Act to get more companies involved in manufacturing so-called Personal Protective Equipment to produce masks for nurses.

“We are really fighting to have our N95 masks,” registered nurse Maria Louviaux said in an interview. “We are very restricted to when and how we can wear those PPE’s.”

Louviaux, also a representative with the CNA, said UCI hospital policy restricts them from PPE equipment that can help decrease chances of contracting COVID-19 while treating patients. Louviaux and fellow RN Angela Mayfield said hospital management demands that they not use surgical masks unless they must.

“We are not the only facility going through this,” Louviaux said. “The nurses are extremely concerned…They are telling us they have masks available, but they want to conserve them. We do want to be able to wear a mask throughout our entire shift. More than that, we want our N95 masks.”

UCI Health issued a statement that said the hospital does not have a shortage of masks, but “given uncertainty about future availability of these supplies, UCI Health and medical centers across the University of California Health System have adopted safe conservation protocols consistent” with CDC and Cal-OSHA guidance.

“This broad conservation effort includes keeping PPE secure so they are available for health care workers who need it, reducing the number of non-urgent surgery and clinic visits, monitoring usage hourly and collecting unused PPE supplies from UC campuses, including from colleagues in research labs,” the statement said.

The nurses’ protest – individuals standing outside the hospital while maintaining social distancing — came as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Orange County and across the country. The Orange County Health Care Agency on Thursday reported that the county was up to 656 COVID-19 cases, including 13 deaths. Three of those deaths were reported Thursday. In addition, 115 people were hospitalized with the illness, including 47 in intensive care.

Louviaux acknowledged that the nurses’ complaint about protecting their own health is no different to nurses, physicians and other hospital personnel across the nation. Doctors and nurses, as well as first responders, have contracted COVID-19 while treating patients around the world. Some have died.

Throughout the country, hospitals are in need of N95 masks, the most protective gear available to separate doctors and nurses from patients with the virus. Hospital personnel have posted photographs of workers wearing trash bags instead of proper gowns and gloves. Workers have complained about not being able to change gloves, gowns and masks throughout the day.

Even as some jurisdictions, including the city of Los Angeles and Riverside County, have encouraged citizens to wear masks while shopping and outdoors to prevent expelling and inhaling the droplets that spread the coronavirus, masks are in short supply for even hospital professionals.

Amazon on Thursday announced it would no longer sell some face masks and anti-bacterial wipes to the general public and would only offer them to health care providers.

Trump on Thursday issued a Defense Production Act memo directing six companies to make ventilators, which are in short supply for hospitalized patients. Hospitals around the country do not have enough. A second order directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use its authority to acquire N95 respirators from 3M.

The nurses want the same actions regarding surgical masks and N95 masks.

“We are calling for Trump to invoke full authority…so that we can have companies on board,” Louviaux said.

At UCI Medical Center, Louviaux said the hospital is treating COVID-19 patients, but she declined to discuss what’s happening inside.

“We do have both patients and nursing staff that have been tested and some have come back (positive),” she said. “That’s the case across the state and across the nation…We do have a population of COVID-19 patents, whether it’s because they are suspected and are awaiting test results or because they are positive.”

Mayfield said nurses want to be protected from COVID-19 even when treating patients for other problems, like a sprained ankle. She said nurses fear getting sick and passing the coronavirus on to family members.

“If we become sick and we get COVID or any other respiratory issue, who is left?” she said. “It’s very unfortunate. We feel very unprotected at the hospital.”

Louviaux said nurses are told not to wear masks unless they have a patient positive for COVID-19 or suspected of having the illness while awaiting tests.

To use the N95 masks — called that because they filter out 95 percent of the droplets that can lead to contracting the virus — nurses must seek a manager’s approval to sign them out and, in some units, request security “to actually come with a key to unlock an office.”

“It’s very unfortunate,” Louviaux said. “We feel very unprotected in the hospital.”

UCI Health said in its statement that it is permitting staff and health care workers who want to wear masks to do so. Staff who interact with COVID-19 patients or those suspected of having it “must wear the extensive PPE we have provided for this purpose.”

Hospital officials, the statement said, are “committed to providing a safe environment for staff, physicians and patients during this extraordinary and unprecedented international health crisis.”

“That commitment includes providing every health care worker with extensive guidance and training in the appropriate use of personal protective equipment. The greatest asset in this fight is our staff and our top priority is to protect them and their colleagues and minimize the likelihood of disease transmission,” the statement said.

The statement said that although a mask can prevent droplet spray from entering the wearer’s nose or mouth, and can prevent a cough from spraying droplets to other people, a “mask will not address environmental contamination or prevent unclean hands from touching your eyes or face. Strict hand hygiene is required to truly reduce health care worker risk.”