Nurses at ECMC say shortage of N-95 masks endangers them

Catholic Health made changes, nurse says
Posted at 5:23 PM, Mar 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-31 18:38:17-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Catholic Health is not the only major health care system in Western New York to come under fire for a shortage of protective masks for its workers.

Nurses from Erie County Medical Center -- the region’s only Level 1 Adult Trauma Center -- say their lives are also at risk because of possible exposure to COVID-19.

“I'm on the front line,” said Lona DeNisco, an emergency room nurse at ECMC. “My coworkers are on the front line. We work in high-stress environments every day. We know that lives are on the line every time we go to work, but now our lives are on the line.”

DeNisco wrote a passionate post on Facebook detailing what looked like a homemade safety contraption with large safety goggles and a basic surgical mask.

"I hug and kiss my kids as if it's the last,” she wrote. “I have contacted friends to be surrogates to my children in the event I am infected...This is the best protection we have?"

Her comments come a day after nurses at Catholic Health voiced similar concerns about protective masks they said were under lock and key. Catholic Health officials acknowledged they are trying to ration the protective gear for an expected wave of COVID-19 cases.

But at ECMC, officials have been wary to admit that a problem exists, even as they put out a public call Tuesday for donations of N-95 masks.

“The nursing supervisors are always there with masks,” said Charlene J. Ludlow, vice president and chief quality & safety officer at ECMC. “There's always somebody on the units that are available that can get to the masks. Some of them are locked up in specific rooms. But it's not that they can't get them. They just have to ask for them.”

Ludlow said the hospital puts regular surgical masks on all visitors and staff as part of its “universal masking” mandate that has been in place since Sunday. As for the N-95 masks, she said the hospital is keeping them locked up to prevent theft.

“We don't want them to be gone,” Ludlow said. “We want to make sure they're used when they're working there. Other hospitals have had problems where people were coming in and taking, you know, whole boxes.”

But a second nurse at ECMC sent the I-Team text messages from a group chat among nurses. One nurse said, "the hospital is threatening termination if any employee on that floor has an N-95 mask on unless they are treating a patient that is intubated."

Ludlow said she did not know about this specific directive but said it would be contrary to hospital policy.

"I don't believe we would terminate anybody for something like that," she said. "I mean, I'm not sure where that was said or how that was said. I'm not sure what happened there. But that's not our normal practice."

DeNisco said ECMC has been diligent about making sure anyone treating confirmed COVID-19 patients are wearing N-95 masks. The danger, she and others say, occurs with patients who have not been tested.

“In the interim, we've all already had that patient, I've triaged them, someone else has assessed them,” she said. “They've been in a different room, and now they're in a COVID room. So how many people have already been exposed to that one patient that now is testing positive for COVID?”

All of this is taking an emotional toll on medical professionals who are used to dealing with trauma on a regular basis.

“We have people that are physically and mentally having to coach themselves into the emergency room, sitting in their cars in tears before they come to their shift,” DeNisco said. “That's crazy.”

The nurse from Mercy Hospital who spoke with the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team Monday said the story had an immediate impact.

"Because of you and your team every nurse not only has N95 masks but they also have full PPE (gowns),” she said.