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These Nurses Were Suspended For Refusing To Work With Coronavirus Patients Without N95 Masks

"It just made us feel like they are valuing the lives of the doctors more than the nurses."

Posted on April 16, 2020, at 7:47 p.m. ET

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Lizabeth Baker Wade

Ten nurses at a California hospital have been placed on administrative leave after each refused to continue to work with coronavirus patients until they received face masks known as N95 respirators.

Chelsea Halmy, one of the nurses who was suspended, told BuzzFeed News she spoke up about the lack of personal protective equipment on Saturday and isn't sure when she'll be allowed back to work at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.

N95 respirators are designed to filter out 95% of particles in the air and provide the best protection against the coronavirus for health care workers. At Providence Saint John’s, nurses say they have been given much more porous surgical masks while the N95s have been saved for doctors.

"We spend significantly more time with these patients than doctors," Halmy said. "It just made us feel like they are valuing the lives of the doctors more than the nurses."

Halmy, who started her nursing career in the fall, requested an N95 mask when she reported to her night shift on Saturday, but she was denied. She then told the charge nurse that she wouldn't be working with coronavirus patients without one.

Soon, senior management appeared with a form for Halmy to sign.

"Failure to accept a direct order is a violation of our Hospital policy and is considered insubordination," the notice read. "In addition, we would need to consider if it is reportable to your licensing body as patient abandonment or other professional misconduct."

But Halmy wrote her side of the story on the notice.

"I don't want to leave, I want to stay and take care of my patients," she wrote. "However, I do not feel safe and would like an N95 mask."

In a statement to the Associated Press, the hospital said that as of Tuesday it's providing N95s to all nurses caring for coronavirus patients.

“It’s no secret there is a national shortage,” the statement added.

Hambly doesn't just blame her hospital, but also the CDC. In response to a run on N95 masks and other protective equipment, the CDC has lowered its standards for nurses and other health care providers working with coronavirus patients.

Alex Edelman / Getty Images

"I mean, it's crazy that they're expecting us to wear the same type of mask that they're telling people to wear to the supermarket," said Halmy. "We're with positive patients that are coughing and are super sick, and we're in a small, closed room with them for like 12 hours. How can we be denied the proper protection?"

Halmy isn't the only one blaming the CDC. Jean Ross — copresident of National Nurses United, of which Halmy is a member — told BuzzFeed News the CDC's guidance is part of the Trump administration's wider failure to protect health care workers during the pandemic.

"Originally, they had it right. They said we needed N95 masks," said Ross. "And then the American Hospital Association talks to them, and then we got this."

With the hospital now providing the masks, Halmy is ready to get back to work, but she hasn't yet been allowed to. She and the other nurses are being paid while on administrative leave, but they were notified that they could face disciplinary action once a hospital HR investigation is complete.

"I was just trying to keep my head down and take care of my patients. All I was asking for was what I needed to keep myself safe," said Halmy, who was particularly excited about starting her career at Providence Saint John’s because her grandmother had worked there for decades. "I've been really saddened that my hospital hasn't been getting me the support that I deserve."

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