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A Veterans Hospital Changed Its Coronavirus Mask Policy After Employees Complained

Days after a BuzzFeed News article on rationing in LA, officials debuted new guidelines to protect medical personnel.

Posted on April 13, 2020, at 6:16 p.m. ET

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie

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The Veterans Affairs hospital system in Los Angeles has implemented new policies on personal protective equipment for medical personnel treating novel coronavirus patients after BuzzFeed News reported that employees were told they may have to ration their masks.

Under the previous policy, LA health care workers treating patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 would receive only a single surgical mask per shift rather than the N95 respirators recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staffers at the hospital who spoke to BuzzFeed News worried that the new measures could get them or other patients sick. At the time, at least three VA workers had died from COVID-19, a number that has since tripled.

Two days after the publication of the BuzzFeed News report, the policy was overhauled. The new guidelines suggest that workers obtain a new mask when going between positive cases and suspected or negative cases. Some workers had been asked to use the same surgical mask for an entire week, but now will be given one each day.

In an email obtained by BuzzFeed News, Medical Center Director Dr. Steven Braverman apologized to workers for a “failure on my part to effectively communicate with you so that each and every employee knows our operational status and what we’re doing to keep you safe.”

One staff member told BuzzFeed News “that level of honesty surprised me.”

A spokesperson for the hospital system did not return a detailed message Monday seeking comment.

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In his email, Braverman said he and his staff had already been working on a new policy governing the use of masks.

“Prior to us learning about this article, we were developing new guidelines for PPE use with more specificity in an attempt to help you all understand what type of mask to wear under what circumstance,” Braverman wrote. “We’re not making stuff up, and we didn’t change our policies because of a media article.”

Last week, workers began speaking out after Steven Simon, the chief of staff for VA’s Greater LA Healthcare System, sent an email to hospital employees informing them that the facility would have to begin to ration masks due to a supply shortage. This directive contradicted an email sent 30 minutes earlier by a top official at VA headquarters in Washington, DC, who said inventory levels were “adequate.”

At the time, staff members described the equipment situation as grim. One said workers were sharing equipment from one shift to another, and said they were still asked to count N95 masks the same way that they do narcotic drugs.

Another said that some equipment was being treated with ultraviolet rays — a common disinfectant — so it could be reused. There is scant research on whether UV exposure can kill COVID-19 on surfaces, but it has been effective on other coronaviruses.

Each of the workers asked to remain anonymous because of a VA policy prohibiting employees from speaking to the press.

“There is a lot of conflicting info coming from leadership,” one of the staffers said.

Braverman told workers in the email that the LA hospital system had enough N95 masks to last at least four weeks under “surge conditions,” when the hospital could be flooded by new patients. Leaders believe they had about a week’s worth of surgical masks.

“You can see from the numbers that limiting surgical masks to 1 per day (if not soiled or contaminated) is both safe and responsible,” Braverman wrote. “You’ll see me walking around with a mask my wife made for me. I’ll sew some more myself this weekend from my wife’s quilt fabric stash.”

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