68°F
weather icon Clear

Mask, protective gear shortage leaves nurses afraid, feeling unsafe

Updated March 26, 2020 - 8:29 am

Facing shortages, Las Vegas Valley hospitals are rationing masks and other protective gear used by doctors, nurses and other staff to keep them and their patients safe.

Typically free-flowing, the supplies are now treated like precious commodities as global demand has skyrocketed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Henderson nurse Geoconda Hughes is among those pushing back.

“They seem to think we’re replaceable and masks are not,” said Hughes, a nurse in the intensive care unit at St. Rose Dominican Hospital, Siena campus.

Hughes, a union representative, said she’s voicing concerns she’s heard from nurses around the valley contending with supply shortages stemming from the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases. Nurses at multiple local hospitals have been told not to wear close-fitting N95 masks until patients with COVID-19 symptoms have tested positive for the new coronavirus, she said.

Although the administration at Rose Dominican, Siena late last week reiterated that nurses could wear a mask before a patient tests positive, Hughes remains unnerved by what she and others see as shifting standards.

Dignity Health-St. Rose Dominican Hospitals acknowledged concern about a “rapidly decreasing inventory,” leading the hospital to strictly follow conservation guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spokesman Gordon Absher wrote in a statement. He said, however, that because of the tight controls, the Rose Dominican hospitals do have the inventory to protect their staff members.

“Their safety and their efforts to ensure the safety of our patients is key to our healing mission,” Absher said.

Despite such assurances, Hughes’ concerns are echoed by front-line health workers at some of the valley’s other major hospitals, all of whom spoke to the Review-Journal on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution by their employers.

Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center is giving each worker only one surgical mask per shift, a critical care nurse said. The hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jeff Murawsky, said Wednesday that masks are replaced mid-shift if they become dirty or damaged, and those that are not are collected at the end of day for potential reprocessing, a strategy that the hospital has not yet employed.

Workers at multiple Valley Health System’s hospitals are required to treat at least five patients while wearing the same single-use N95 mask before they receive a new one, according to interviews with three employees. At at least one of the hospitals, other single-use protective equipment, such as surgical masks and bonnets, must be worn for an entire shift if the staff member is treating patients with the same diagnosis, one of the workers said.

Valley Health System spokeswoman Gretchen Papez was unable to provide a comment on Wednesday.

“This is the first time in my career that our hospitals are going with the least stringent requirements,” Hughes said earlier this week, after ending a 12-hour shift.

Shifting standards

The changes come as hospitals across the nation prepare for an anticipated surge of COVID-19 patients.

The respiratory disease can be spread through droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, according to the CDC. Masks can help prevent health care workers from inhaling those droplets or catching them in their mouths or noses.

But masks may become unavailable because of increased demand, the CDC wrote on its website last week. The federal agency issued new guidance allowing for the use of bandannas, scarves and other homemade masks as a “last resort,” acknowledging that their capabilities to protect against COVID-19 transmission is “unknown.”

Those on the front lines are balking at the changing standards.

“You wouldn’t send a construction worker to a site without a hard hat,” the critical care nurse at Sunrise Hospital said. “Just because you run out of hard hats doesn’t mean you don’t need hard hats anymore.”

And the ongoing changes have created a chaotic work environment, according to some hospital employees who spoke to the Review-Journal.

‘Terrified to … be doing my job’

“The rules change so much we don’t know if we’re doing the right things for our patients and ourselves,” said one of the nurses who asked that her employer not be identified. “It’s making me terrified to even be doing my job.”

Sunrise Hospital’s Murawsky wrote in an email that his hospital has made changes to conserve protective equipment based on CDC recommendations. He said no surgical masks are being reused right now, but the hospital is collecting used equipment so it can be reprocessed if and when such a process is approved by the federal government.

“Our colleagues are our family, the very heart and soul of our hospital,” he said. “We will protect them and ensure they have the right equipment to provide excellent care to our patients all the time.”

But some workers said they believe the measures for conserving supplies may end up causing more harm than good. Complicating matters is that someone infected with the coronavirus may be contagious before showing signs of the disease.

One nurse who asked that her hospital not be named said employees are required to keep coming to work even if they were exposed to someone infected with coronavirus, so long as they wear a mask and aren’t exhibiting symptoms themselves.

She is currently under quarantine because she began displaying COVID-19 symptoms. However, she said her hospital was unable to test her for the disease.

“I was told to go through my own doctor or the emergency room,” she said.

Supply shortages

Local and state public health authorities note that a national shortage of protective gear for medical practitioners is being felt at every level of government and in the private sector.

In the face of high demand across the country, hospitals and government agencies are now competing for resources with people who have begun to stockpile masks, Southern Nevada Health District spokeswoman Stephanie Bethel wrote in an email. The health district is working with local governments to address their needs.

The state has received only about 25 percent of the protective gear it had requested from the federal government, according to Shannon Litz, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.

Litz said that the state has begun distributing gloves, gowns and masks from both the federal resupply and its own warehouse.

Another request has been made to the federal government, but Gov. Steve Sisolak said at a news briefing Tuesday that he expects to again receive 25 percent of what was ordered.

A number of private companies and community organizations are sending hospitals masks that they have in stock or have purchased from private vendors. Local residents are also sewing and donating homemade masks to hospitals.

Keeping safe

Hughes, who is 47 and has two teenage sons, said she knows how to keep herself and her family safe. She had treated patients with infectiousness illnesses such as meningitis, shingles and tuberculosis, all without getting sick.

But now she takes her temperature each night before she returns home. She takes her clothes off in her backyard before she enters her house, and immediately takes a shower.

She’s even sent her sons to live with her sister.

“I am afraid of my work environment getting more and more unsafe,” Hughes said.

Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Follow @DavidsonLVRJ on Twitter. Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Local Videos
Meals on Wheels waiting list skyrockets - VIDEO
Media and community relations director Leslie Carmine discusses changes regarding Meals on Wheels, at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. The waiting list for the meals that are delivered directly to homebound seniors in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas has grown up to 2,400. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Residents concerned about recent mailbox break-ins - VIDEO
Checks from the stimulus bill passed by Congress are being sent out this week and next. Some Las Vegas residents are concerned those checks could be stolen out of mailboxes. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County will allow the delivery of alcohol, temporarily - VIDEO
Las Vegas officials allowed alcohol delivery to begin late last week in their jurisdiction. Now Clark County is doing the same until April 30, unless the shutdown is extended. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Henderson center opens food bank to public - VIDEO
Visitors to the St. Therese Center HIV Outreach drive-thru food pantry talk about the impact of food banks for their families and friends. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Cars line up for over 4 miles for food
Cars were lined up along Sahara Avenue from Palace Station to South Rainbow Boulevard for food distribution sponsored by Three Square and Central Church in Henderson.
Two large fires hit parts of the Las Vegas Valley - VIDEO
Renee Summerour wraps up the two large fire that hit part of the Las Vegas Valley Late Wednesday , early morning Thursday. RJ reporter Glenn Puit was at both scenes. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas hotels light up their windows to show support during shutdown - VIDEO
Hotels on the Las Vegas Strip lit up their windows with hearts and messages to show support during the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday night, April 1. (Le'Andre Fox and James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Isolation and quarantine center for homeless at Cashman Center - VIDEO
A new isolation and quarantine center for homeless is under construction at the Cashman Center in downtown Las Vegas, March 31. (K.M Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Day care changes hours and takes extra steps to help guardians - VIDEO
Sarah Washington, whose children attend Discovery Gardens Childcare, shares the importance of the facility’s hour changes, and child care director Ariella Thomas discusses some other changes Discovery Gardens Childcare has made, in Las Vegas on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Elizabeth Page Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Elipagephoto
Costco reduces hours at Las Vegas Valley stores, gasoline pumps - VIDEO
Costco announced it will reduce hours at its stores and gas pumps starting Monday. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police investigate apparent murder-suicide
Las Vegas police investigate an apparent murder-suicide in the 3900 block of Chasing Heart Way on Saturday, March 28, 2020. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Homeless outreach organization feeds people in age of social distancing - VIDEO
Homeless outreach organization Food Not Bombs handed out sack lunches, hygiene kits and blankets on Foremaster Lane in Las Vegas, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, which has temporarily closed its dining room and emergency night shelter, also handed out to-go lunches on Foremaster Lane. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Nevada gets an A for social distancing
In an interactive Scoreboard by tech company Unacast, organizations can measure and understand the efficacy of social distancing. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada construction continues as coronavirus spreads
When Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered Nevada businesses closed, he let construction workers stay on the job, deeming homebuilding and other construction “essential” lines of work.
Pedestrian struck, killed in western Las Vegas Valley crash - VIDEO
Las Vegas police are investigating after a pedestrian was struck and killed in a crash Wednesday night in the west valley. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police investigate fatal crash in east Las Vegas - VIDEO
Las Vegas police said a pedestrian was killed when they were hit by a vehicle near Sloan Lane and of East Charleston Boulevard on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Seeing teachers at a distance, closed parks and lack of toilet paper - VIDEO
The neighboring towns of Logandale and Overton, northeast of Las Vegas, are experiencing the effects of coronavirus, with closed schools and playgrounds and fewer items in grocery stores. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas residents enjoy the snow at Lee Canyon - VIDEO
Las Vegas residents get out to enjoy the snow at Lee Canyon on Mount Charleston. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Post office stays open amidst shutdown - VIDEO
Mail delivery and services at post offices continues despite the coronavirus crisis. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1 person dies in east Las Vegas fire - VIDEO
One person and a dog were found dead after a fire in a detached structure adjacent to a house near East Monroe Avenue and North Betty Lane in east Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Albertsons, Walmart, Amazon increase pay amid coronavirus impact - VIDEO
Grocery stores and other retailers have raised employee pay as they work to meet customer demand during the coronavirus pandemic. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
High winds move clouds across the Las Vegas Valley - Time-lapse video
Isolated showers depart when gusty winds move in probably remain through Wednesday, March 25, when another storm front is expected. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Downtown's Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign moving to Neon Museum - VIDEO
Yesco workers remove the Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard on Monday, March 23, 2020. The sign, which has been at the location for five years, will be displayed at the Neon Museum. A museum representative said a replacement neon sign is in the works. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Distance Learning challenges for Clark County School District - VIDEO
Renee Summerour sits down with RJ reporter Aleksandra Appleton to discuss the challenges the Clark County School District is facing with Distance Learning, a program that was slated to begin Monday, March 23. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Deliver with Dignity will give 100 families meals today - VIDEO
“Deliver with Dignity” was created “to bring high-quality meals directly to the most vulnerable families in the Las Vegas Valley, keeping them and the community safe by reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19.” (Facebook/Clark County)
CCSD board holds an emergency meeting on Distance Learning - VIDEO
The Clark County School Board held an emergency meeting on Monday morning, the day that distance learning was supposed to begin at all schools in Nevada. (Clark County School District)
Las Vegas Valley residents make medical masks for health care workers - VIDEO
Anissa Gustafson has spent most of her week sewing masks in an effort to assist health care workers in the Las Vegas Valley who are running out because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Coronavirus patients could inundate hospitals - VIDEO
RJ Investigations reporter Michael S. Davidson talks about how a rapid influx of coronavirus patients could soon inundate Nevada hospitals, pushing them past their capacity and threatening health care workers’ safety. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
M Resort donates food surplus to workers - VIDEO
The M Resort donated a surplus of perishable food supplies to team members after the closure of the hotel due to a shutdown of nonessential businesses in Nevada, Friday, March 20, 2020. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Costco reserved earliest hour for seniors - VIDEO
People line up outside Costco in Henderson after the store reserved earliest hour for seniors on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Missing hiker's sister on staying hopeful - Video
Karsta Lucas, the sister of Ronnie Lucas, a hiker missing at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, said Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, that family members remain hopeful the 33-year-old diabetic will be found safe despite spending two nights in the open without his insulin. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Search continues for missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon - Video
Volunteers come out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area west of Las Vegas to help find a hiker, Ronnie Lucas, who went missing on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Search for missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon - Video
Red Rock Search & Rescue is looked for the missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on Monday, Feb. 10, 2010. The man was reported missing on Sunday. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas ready to enforce homeless camping ban - VIDEO
Las Vegas police will begin enforcing a controversial camping ban on city streets on Saturday, but officials say they expect to impose the penalties available under the new ordinance only in rare instances. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Officials celebrate opening of Las Vegas park named for slain officer - Video
Top public officials came together Friday morning to celebrate the grand opening of Officer Alyn Beck Memorial Park in the northwest valley, named after a police officer killed in the line of duty in 2014. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wrong-way driver causes fatal crash near Las Vegas airport, authorities say - VIDEO
A suspected impaired motorist driving the wrong way on the Airport Connector caused a crash that killed another driver near McCarran International Airport early Friday morning, Jan. 17, 2020, according to law enforcement. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The car that Tupac was shot in is for sale - VIDEO
The vehicle that legendary rapper Tupac Shakur was riding in when he was shot after a boxing match in Las Vegas is up for auction. The black 1996 BMW 7 Series is listed by Celebrity Cars Las Vegas for $1.75 million. (Angus Kelly/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST
Las Vegas radio host’s case fits emerging COVID-19 pattern

“It’s respiratory arrest in its true form: a sudden type of hypoxia and worsening that requires emergent intubation,” one doctor said of a pattern of rapid decline in COVID-19 patients. Such was the case with a Las Vegas radio host.