Amid lingering concerns about the supply of protective gear worn by nurses and other health care professionals, some workers and their representatives are clashing with employers over whether appropriate steps are being taken to protect those on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.
Nurse Dawn Kulach made headlines earlier this month when, she said, she was fired by Virtua Voorhees Hospital in South Jersey for trying to keep herself safe, wearing her own N95 mask on a COVID-19 floor when the facility was relying on regular surgical masks at the time.
And on Thursday, the union representing nurses and other health care professionals at another Virtua facility, Virtua Memorial Hospital in Burlington County said it has filed a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration saying that frontline personnel were given unapproved, and in some cases damaged, respirator masks, and that workers were not properly fitted for using the devices.
“Unionized nurses at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly have been reporting that the hospital has been providing them unapproved ‘KN95s,’ instead of the NIOSH-approved N95 respirators, even though they often work in high risk situations,” Local 5105 of the Health Professional and Allied Employees union said in a release Thursday.
In response, a spokesperson for Virtua Health said that the masks came from the federal government’s stockpile.
“We can say, unequivocally, that this complaint is not true,” Dr. John Matsinger told nj.com. “We have taken every step necessary to ensure that our health care workers, particularly those engaged in direct patient care in high-risk areas and procedures, have the equipment, supplies, and support needed to address this unprecedented public health emergency.”
The disputes come against the backdrop — weeks into the crisis — of continuing worries about the supply of so-called PPE, or personal protective equipment, worn by health care workers and others whose jobs expose them to those who might have the virus.
State officials say that, while they have had success in acquiring and distributing PPE for health care workers and others, it remains an ongoing struggle to keep the shelves stocked, one where New Jersey is competing with other locations hit hard by the outbreak.
“We made a lot of progress on PPE,” said Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday during his daily briefing on the crisis. “I still spend a good piece of my day calling far-off places in the world to try to get PPE.”
Col. Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the State Police, said that officials held out a lot of hope for a system now in place that will be used to decontaminate N95 masks. He also said, though, that isolation gowns were a key pressure point in the supply chain right now.
“We’re not in a position where we can just stop,” Callahan said. “I can’t envision stopping to try to procure PPE. I don’t know when that will be. I hope it’s soon, but I don’t envision it to be.”
“It really is day to day,” said Dr. Brian L. Strom, chancellor of Biomedical and Health Sciences at Rutgers University, who was also at the daily briefing Thursday. “We have enough, barely. But it’s really very much a day-to-day thing … ultimately, you want to go way beyond day to day. You want to be able to story up to be able to have for the next time.”
Kulach’s story goes back to the end of last month, when on March 31 — a day after recovering from pneumonia — she says she packed her own N95 mask and gloves when returning to work at Virtua Voorhees Hospital, and was told that doing so violated hospital policies, including those about potential contamination.
Contacted about Kulach’s allegations, Virtua’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Reginald Blaber released a statement: “Virtua does not comment on personnel matters,” it read. “We are doing our absolute best to respond to the anxiousness of our frontline teams. […] we have been in constant dialogue and openly listening to staff concerns. […] we do have to draw the line when individuals say that they won’t follow our safety policies.”
Kulach said she didn’t believe those policies were adequate.
“We were only given a surgical mask on the floor unless we were going into specific COVID patient rooms,” she said. “It was very, very thin and we were given a paper bag to place that mask in and we are supposed to wear that specific mask all day.”
Kulach says she was immediately told by a supervisor that her gloves and mask violated hospital policy and warned her if she didn’t remove them, she would have to leave.
“I was told that I was not allowed to wear the gloves, that it was a contamination issue. I explained that I was not going to wear them anywhere else besides the shared nursing station. I even showed them my hands, which were cracked and bleeding at that time. I was still told that I couldn’t wear the gloves, and the supervisor went onto the mask issues and told me that she wasn’t going to allow me to wear my own mask. She told me that I was bringing a contaminated object in from home. That’s not a viable argument because my scrubs are from home,” she said.
Dawn says she was given an ultimatum on April 9 to either resign or be terminated the next day. She refused and so informed management in a letter. “I explained my concerns and my concerns were downgraded” she said.
Kulach provided a letter she received the next day from Heidi Baur, vice president of patient care at the hospital, saying that she had been terminated. In it, Baur stated that Virtua had “specific protocols for the safe and appropriate use of PPE during COVID-19,” including some that exceeded CDC guidelines.
“It’s kind of a do as I say kind of atmosphere and leave the rest to us and that’s not good enough,” said Douglas Place, executive director of Kulach’s union, JNESO.
“Health care workers on the frontlines are at a premium,” he said. “To terminate a good quality nurse is just mind-boggling. More and more of our members are getting sick and then they are taken away from the bedside and it’s becoming more and more pervasive.”
Kulach and Placa say they have reached out to Murphy, in hopes that legislation can be enacted to boost protections for medical professionals like herself.