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Union demands more protection for BMC nurses

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PITTSFIELD Unionized nurses at Berkshire Medical Center are pressing for more protection to limit their exposure to COVID-19.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association on Monday called on Berkshire Health Systems, the hospital's parent company, to provide stronger personal protective equipment standards for front-line nurses and health care workers. The union also called for a triage area to be set up outside of the hospital to limit coronavirus exposure to patients, staff and the community.

On Thursday, BMC instituted an expanded personal protective equipment policy that required all staff in contact with patients to wear surgical masks, eye protection and gloves. But, according to the MNA, only BMC staff who are in contact with patients who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or patients being ruled out for the virus have been provided with the N95 respirator masks that offer the high level of protection when used with eye protection, a gown and gloves.

As of Saturday, all of the 97 nurses at BMC who had been furloughed and instructed to self-quarantine after potential exposure to COVID-19 were all exposed without wearing personal protective equipment, according to the nurses union. All but 22 of those nurses do not work on units designated for COVID-19 positive or COVID 19 rule-out patients.

BMC has not given these masks to every nurse in the hospital's emergency department, the nurses union stated in the news release it issued Monday. The emergency department is one of 11 units in the hospital that has no access to N95 masks.

Joe Markman, a spokesman for the MNA, said the nurses union decided to go public with their demands on Monday after BMC nurses requested the enhanced personal protective equipment policy during a meeting Saturday with hospital management. According to Markman, hospital managers did not agree to the proposal.

"We want to make sure that the people who can effect change can get things manufactured, can donate PPE, are aware that we need it, and that we need large quantities of it," said Mark Brodeur, a registered nurse in the emergency department who has worked at BMC for 10 years, in a telephone interview.

"We want people to understand that our supplies are not stable. We do not have the equipment and we are not protecting all of our staff," said Brodeur.

The MNA claimed the hospital provided numbers on its personal protective equipment supply, suggesting that if BMC changed its policy and gave N95 masks to personnel in contact with any patient, the hospital would still have a 28-day supply of masks.

In a statement, Berkshire Health Systems disputed that claim and said its supply would last just two weeks if it gave masks to all personnel in contact with hospital patients. Spokesman Michael Leary said the MNA's calculation of the burn rate of N95 masks at the hospital, if used for all who have contact with any patient, "is considerably in error."

"They claim Berkshire Health Systems would have a 28-day supply if all staff with any patient contact wore them, but in fact the burn rate would see us run out of N-95 masks in nearly two weeks, with a highly uncertain ability to rebuild the stock and maintain that level of usage going forward," Leary said.

The N95 masks are in short supply across the United States.

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In response, Markman said the "key thing to understand is that the nurses caring for patients need the N95s now to limit the spread of the virus."

Leary said Berkshire Health Systems places the highest priority on the safety of its patients and staff. The hospital has instituted personal protective equipment usage policies that exceed the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, including requiring all staff, regardless of whether they have patient contact, to wear a surgical mask while at work, according to Leary.

The CDC and DPH have both indicated that the use of a surgical mask, eye protection, such as goggles or a face shield, and gloves, provide appropriate protection for health care workers who are providing care for patients, exclusive of those who are COVID-19 positive or being ruled out, he said.

Despite the CDC's change in its personal protective equipment guidelines during the coronavirus outbreak, the nurses union maintains that health care workers should be provided that gear under previous CDC guidelines and World Health Organization standards. The MNA has also called for every front-line health care worker to use an N95 mask and flatten the curve in their communities.

Acknowledging a looming shortage of personal protective equipment and committing to universal N95 masks for front-line staff would prompt additional donations of equipment, the nurses union stated in its news release. The MNA claims a local company is preparing to manufacture N95 masks, but did not identify which one.

"We all know that coronavirus is a highly infectious and stealthy virus that can be spread by asymptomatic people, leaving front-line health care workers and hospital patients at risk unless we have the highest standard of protective equipment," said Alex Neary, a registered nurse in the hospital's intensive care unit, who also co-chairs BMC's MNA bargaining committee, in a statement.

"Every nurse and health care worker on the front line at Berkshire Medical Centers must be able to use personal protective equipment that can effectively guard against the widespread risk of exposure to COVID-19," Neary said. "At this point, to be safe and limit the spread among our staff and our community, we must assume any patient could have the virus and act accordingly."

BMC nurses on Saturday also called for the hospital to set up a triage area outside the emergency department. According to the MNA, management said it was discussing the matter following an earlier meeting on March 20, but the hospital had yet to take action. The nurses union has also asked that patients with respiratory problems not enter the emergency department's main lobby. The union has suggested a designated area outside the entrance to the emergency department in order to screen and triage patients with respiratory problems, "so they do not commingle with other ED patients."

BMC nurses do appreciate that the hospital has ensured that staff on furlough for potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus are receiving their full pay by supplementing workers compensation funds, according to the MNA.

The hospital also has agreed to supplement the essential personnel child care the state has provided and makes sure staff have no-charge child care during the coronavirus crisis.

BMC also has worked to create a significant number of negative-pressure rooms for COVID-19 patients that help limit infection exposure, the nurses union said.

Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski @berkshireeagle.com or at 413-496-6224.


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