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Nurses union says to assume all patients have COVID-19

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PITTSFIELD — The state's largest nurses union hardened its stance on Tuesday about high-protection face masks, saying that all health care workers on the front lines of the novel coronavirus pandemic must wear them to stop the spread of infection.

In her third letter since March 13 to Gov. Charlie Baker and other state officials, the president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association now says that workers should assume that every patient is infected, since carriers of COVID-19 can be asymptomatic.

"The inability to effectively segregate patients quickly, as well as the lack of available testing with quick results, has left us with co-mingled patients and the virus is ahead of us," wrote Donna Kelly-Williams. "It is not an issue of assigning blame, it is simply an issue of reality and therefore this approach is the only effective strategy going forward."

The approach, however, will require a supply increase amid local and nationwide shortages of equipment, particularly disposable N95 masks that filter out 95 percent of submicron particles, including viruses. Homemade surgical masks are insufficient, Kelly-Williams said.

The problem continues as local, state and national cases and deaths tick upward.

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Baker and other state officials, including Berkshire County Legislators and the state Department of Public Health, continue to push for more masks. Some local manufacturers, like Boyd Technologies in Lee, say they are pivoting to help.

Nurses say this scarcity is dangerous.

Several nurses at Berkshire Medical Center reported on Monday that the shortage has required reuse of the N95 masks, and said there are also shortages of power air-purifying respirators. The PAPRs are required if an N95 mask does not fit properly. Unlike the N95s, PAPRs can be sterilized and reused.

Berkshire Health Systems, which runs BMC, is working aggressively with its regular suppliers to secure more masks, said spokesman Michael Leary on Tuesday. The company, which also runs Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, is receiving a "stable supply" from the federal stockpile.

"While we are currently stable in our supplies as of today, that does not mean they are plentiful, and we are keeping a daily count of PPE (personal protective equipment) and also following the Centers for Disease Control guidance on the appropriate re-use of PPE, and only under the circumstances cited by the CDC for such re-use in order to be judicious in our use of this critical supply," Leary wrote.

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


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