Catholic Health not protecting its workers from COVID-19, nurses say

Protective masks are the issue
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Posted at 4:22 PM, Mar 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-30 18:25:14-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — One of Western New York’s largest health care organizations is coming under fire for allegations that it is not sufficiently protecting its workforce from COVID-19.

Multiple nurses from Mercy Hospital of Buffalo who spoke with the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team say Catholic Health has been jeopardizing their safety by not providing them with the necessary protective masks as they care for patients with COVID-19.

“I have coworkers...believe me, I cry constantly at night thinking which one of my co workers are going to die next,” said one Mercy nurse, who spoke to the I-Team on the condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation. “They’re terrified...I’m terrified.”

The nurse is not the only one. Others contacted the I-Team separately with similar complaints -- complaints that Catholic Health leaders say are without basis.

“My number one priority -- and everybody in this room has heard me say this -- is keeping our healthcare workers safe,” said Dr. Kevin Shiley, director of infection control for Catholic Health.

Shiley said the company is “absolutely” following all guidance from the CDC and the State Department of Health when it comes to providing masks for health care workers.

“So we wouldn't wait, for example, for a test result before starting the personal protective equipment,” Shiley said. “It would be started immediately as soon as that suspicion was noted.”

But the nurse said that’s not what happened over a week ago on the fifth floor at Mercy Hospital, when a man with respiratory issues who some nurses suspected as a COVID-19 patient was not given a test.

“These patients are not being tested...they have multiple symptoms,” the nurse said. “There’s a lot of deaths going on.”

Days later, she said the man died of COVID-19, but not before he was exposed to multiple health care workers who were not wearing masks.

“It seems like corporate thinks that everybody’s immune,” the nurse said. “The emergency room nurses are only allowed to wear a surgical mask.”

The mother of a different nurse sent the I-Team a text message saying, “...the Catholic Health System is not providing them with masks -- they are locked up and only given out when someone deems it necessary. Yet they are sending people up to the med floors without being tested -- because they have no tests.”

Dr. Shiley and Martin Boryszak, senior vice president of acute care for Catholic Health, both denied allegations that Catholic Health was not testing patients. But Shiley said Catholic Health needs to be “wise and thoughtful” about using supplies, and he acknowledged that some emergency room nurses have been wearing basic surgical masks instead of the more protective N-95 masks because the N-95 masks are not always medically necessary.

“Simply walking by someone in a hallway that isn't undergoing one of these aerosol generating procedures, that's not considered a really dangerous risk in terms of needing an N-95,” Shiley said.

He added that the more basic surgical masks are within federal guidelines, and Catholic Health officials say they’ve been trying to conserve supplies for the later stages of the outbreak.

“If it isn't something that is necessary, and we know that we could help maintain an adequate supply of devices by not wasting them or over-utilizing them now, that allows us to make sure that, you know, down the line as we climb this mountain of the epidemic -- which it really is -- we're going to make sure we're we're going to feel very comfortable that we have this supply available,” Shiley said.