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 8,500-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.”
A major trade group representing Pennsylvania hospitals and heath systems acknowledged Friday that protective gear is being conserved because supplies are still tight, but said federal health officials have determined the more frugal PPE policies are still adequate to protect patients and staff.
“Too many Pennsylvanians have deferred vitally important surgeries and procedures, such as cancer treatments, too long. Hospitals are taking all the necessary precautions to ensure their care can be provided safely while protecting the safety of our nurses, physicians, and other frontline staff,” said Rachel Moore, spokeswoman for The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.
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.
More than 4,300 health care workers statewide have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the Health Department. State health officials don’t track deaths among health workers.
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.”
Pennsylvania hospitals say that while personal protective equipment is more readily available than it was earlier in the pandemic, there still isn’t enough supply to meet the overwhelming demand.
Most hospitals report a four- to seven-day supply of PPE on hand, with nearly 50% saying they have three days or less, according to hospital association data.
As a result, “we are living in a new normal of providing medically needed care in the midst of extraordinary circumstances,” said Moore, the hospital group’s spokeswoman.
She added: “CDC conservation strategies are clearly providing for a different PPE usage than before the beginning of the crisis, but the CDC has determined they adequately protect patient and staff.”
The hospital group says 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.