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Nurses say BMC still short of masks, supplies, as union appeals to Baker for help

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PITTSFIELD — Despite the efforts and assurances of hospital executives, nurses at Berkshire Medical Center say they still do not have enough face masks to protect them from exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Since the first patients with COVID-19 began arriving at the emergency room during the first week of March, workers have had to reuse masks for entire shifts or for several days.

They also cite a shortage of full-body aprons, the less protective surgical masks and hood masks with internal airflow systems. These "positive-pressure hoods" are supposed to be used when a worker can't be properly fitted for the N95 masks, which are not intended for reuse. N95 respirators filter at least 95 percent of the smallest particles, including bacteria and viruses. But, BMC staff are prohibited from using N95 masks purchased themselves.

"We have been told to reuse due to the fear that supplies are running out," said Amber VanBramer, a critical care unit nurse who is taking care of COVID-19 patients as well as those who are suspected of infection and awaiting test results. "The nurses want to preserve as much supply as we can, but at what cost?"

VanBramer, who is also one of BMC's nurses union leaders with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said that nurses understand that the equipment problem lies in a manufacturing and supply chain that is buckling amid a pandemic, but that hospital administrators should be frank about mask shortages. Workers want frequent debriefings so they can act accordingly.

"The public needs to know that this is an issue, and we can't lie about it," said VanBramer, whose home will soon be a drop-off point for a donation drive for masks.

Management at Berkshire Health Systems, which runs BMC, say they have a daily call with the state Department of Public Health to, in part, crack into supplies at the federal level. Darlene Rodowicz, BHS executive vice president, said last week that a new batch of masks arrived on March 13.

"We are OK right now, and it obviously depends on whether we get a surge of patients ... so every day we reassess that," she said.

BHS spokesman Michael Leary did not respond to an email on Monday about supplies.

There are currently nine infected inpatients; 14 have symptoms and are awaiting test results, according to BHS officials. Earlier this month, over 160 staff were put under quarantine after exposure to some of the first known infected patients.

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While BMC forages for more masks, hospitals nationwide continue to scramble to secure more personal protective equipment. State officials are trying to help by tapping in to the federal Strategic National Stockpile.

And the MNA, which represents workers at 85 hospitals and other facilities, is trying to protect those on the front lines.

On Wednesday, the union's president sent a second letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, describing a handful of problems seen by front-line staff.

"Health care facilities ... are recommending that nurses reuse PPE without taking the property safety requirements," wrote Donna Kelly-Williams.

The day after Kelly-Williams wrote Baker, the governor had complained to President Donald Trump in a conference call that the federal government had outbid the state as it tried to purchase more personal protective equipment.

"I've got a feeling that if somebody has a chance to sell to you or has a chance to sell to me, I'm going to lose every one of those," Baker told Trump.

Meanwhile, nurses are fearful. One emergency room nurse is still worried about the effect the lack of supplies and preparedness had on the spread of the virus when the first cases started rolling into the ER in early March.

"Nurses are scared for their safety," said the nurse, speaking on the condition of anonymity for losing their job. "The feeling is that we're going to be running out of things soon."

They also don't want to be vectors for the virus. It means both staff and administrators have to cast aside the typical friction, said Mark Brodeur, a union leader who works the night shift in the ER and intensive care unit.

"My goal is to be as cooperative as possible even if there are problems, because right now the priority is just literally getting the public through this crisis until there is a baseline level of security."

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


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