Pennsylvania state health officials are “being misinformed” about the availability of personal protective equipment inside hospitals, one of the state’s largest nurses’ unions alleges in a letter that says hospitals have “resorted to severe rationing” even as they resume elective surgeries.
The 8,400-member Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals said in a letter to the state health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, that working conditions inside hospitals remain unsafe because of lax COVID-19 guidance issued by the Health Department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Pennsylvania health care professionals are scared, exhausted, starting to get sick, and some are dying,” wrote Mark Warshaw, the union’s co-executive director. “The CDC and DOH guidance have given hospitals an excuse and enabled them to ignore basic protections and safety standards for health care workers, and we are the ones suffering.”
The administration of Gov. Tom Wolf had ordered hospitals to postpone elective procedures in an effort to preserve hospital capacity and medical supplies. Late last month, the state Department of Health gave permission to hospitals and outpatient centers to resume elective surgeries if they could show they wouldn’t jeopardize patient safety or their ability to respond to a sudden spike in COVID-19 patients.
One of the conditions that hospitals had to meet was having a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment.
“It’s not about the quantity of PPE locked away in a closet, but whether the hospitals are handing out the PPE to staff,” the union’s letter said. “The consistent excuse hospitals have given when confronted about their lack of basic protections for worker safety is, ‘it’s a crisis; we can’t do it.’ Well, they can, and they must!”
The union said it wants the Health Department to issue a range of new regulations, including a requirement for more extensive testing of health care workers and a mandate that each hospital worker receive at least one new N95 respirator per day.
Responding to the union's letter, the Health Department said it has sent nearly 5 million N95 respirator masks and vast quantities of medical-grade face masks, gloves, gowns and other supplies in nearly 500 shipments to hospitals statewide.
“Secretary Levine appreciates the concerns raised in this letter,” said her spokesman, Nate Wardle, adding: “It is essential that hospitals do not begin to allow these procedures if they cannot properly protect their staff, or their ability to respond to the COVID-19 emergency.”
The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, a trade group, has said that a statewide, voluntary mutual aid agreement has been deploying critical supplies. The Wolf administration has also reserved the right to commandeer medical supplies from private and public health care facilities, manufacturers and other companies.