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Berkshire Health Systems knocks union push for N95 masks in all units

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PITTSFIELD — Nurses at Berkshire Medical Center are pushing the administration to provide N95 masks for all staff who work with patients — anywhere in the hospital — amid the risk of the coronavirus.

But, the request prompted a terse response from Berkshire Health Systems, the parent company of the hospital, which accused union leadership of sparking a labor dispute amid a pandemic to further its agenda.

"It is not the time for such distractions," officials said in a statement sent to The Eagle on Friday.

The pandemic has amplified existing tensions between management and staff. The union's message statewide is to assume that all patients might have the virus, and to insist that all frontline staff wear N95 masks in anticipation of a surge of patients expected to begin in the coming weeks.

A Thursday letter signed by local union members represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association also took aim at management's new policy that it no longer would furlough workers for quarantine if exposed to the coronavirus, and expects workers to use earned sick/vacation time should they fall ill.

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Hospital management took issue with the union's "combative messaging" and says it is doing all it can to prepare for and reduce that surge. Shortages require judicious use of N95 masks, it added, of which there is currently a four-week supply.

Further, officials say the company is exceeding guidelines for the use of personal protective equipment handed down by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

And because of its policies, management says, the workforce has had lower rates of the virus among staff, compared with other hospitals nationally.

Out of nearly 4,000 total employees, five have tested positive. Over 160 workers were furloughed for quarantine last month after exposure.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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