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Months into the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of nurses say they still don't have adequate protective gear and have had to reuse masks and respirators while treating COVID-19 patients, according to a new survey.
Of the nearly 23,000 nurses who responded to the survey conducted by the union National Nurses United between April 15 and May 10, 87% reported that they've had to reuse what should be single-use, disposable N95 respirators or surgical masks when treating a COVID-19 patient due to ongoing mass shortages of personal protective equipment. Meanwhile, 27% said they were exposed to patients who tested positive for the disease while they didn't have appropriate PPE. And, the nurses said, they still had to return to work within 14 days of their exposure.
"This new survey shows that nurses are still fighting today for optimal personal protective equipment (PPE), fighting to get tested, and fighting for their own lives, and their patients’ lives,” NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo said in a statement.
The results of the survey, released Wednesday, come as states reopen more sectors of the economy — which public health experts say may trigger outbreaks of the disease and lead to more deaths.
As of Tuesday, there have been more than 1.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US, and more than 90,000 people have died from the disease. According to the union's internal tracking, the deaths include more than 100 nurses, however, the true impact healthcare workers is likely more devastating due to inconsistent testing and tracking.
"We are left to conclude that what we are worried about, what we are concerned about in our nonprotection is ultimately hurting and killing us," NNU co-president Jean Ross told BuzzFeed News.
N95 respirators and surgical masks should only be used once, according to their manufacturers, but the CDC has said that due to the shortages, hospitals may have to consider reusing gear as a crisis strategy to conserve supplies.
The dilemma has brought about the use and development of decontamination systems to sterilize masks so they can be worn again, but there isn't data to support the effectiveness of those methods against the coronavirus, according to the CDC.
Without a reliable way to clean disposable respirators, the nurses union says that reusing single-use PPE is increasing coronavirus exposure to patients, nurses, and other hospital staff. They added that decontamination procedures can also degrade N95s so that they no longer offer protection.
Ross said decontamination procedures can disintegrate the elastic band that holds the respirator to the wearer's face and also can damage the seal, which is key to prevent air from leaking out or seeping behind the mask.
"We’ve been taught all our lives good infection control and this isn’t it," Ross said, adding that nurses who aren't protected can't keep their patients safe. "You’ve got this important part of your job that you just can't do because you can’t even keep yourself safe."
The NNU survey also found that 16% of respondents, which included both unionized and nonunion nurses from around the country, have been tested for COVID-19. Of those who have been tested, more than 500 were positive and another 500-plus nurses were still waiting for their results at the time they took the survey.
In announcing the survey results, the union criticized President Donald Trump for not using the Defense Production Act to ramp up the production of N95 respirators. The union pointed to government whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright's recent testimony to Congress that his concerns about the country's lack of PPE were dismissed by others in the Trump administration.
“Dr. Rick Bright’s testimony to Congress last week came as no surprise to us," Castillo said. "Nurses on the front lines are dying as evidence of it. He calls it indifference — we call it willful negligence."