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Visiting nurses' masks 'might as well be toilet paper,' nurse says

Health care workers are treating homebound patients while wearing — and repeatedly re-wearing — low-grade surgical masks instead of N95 respirator masks that up until recently would have been considered standard equipment in a viral outbreak like the one sweeping the country, a member of the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut said Tuesday.

During an online discussion with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and representatives of health care worker unions, Martha Marx, a registered nurse, said the use of inferior masks due to a shortage of N95s is endangering nurses, health aides and other workers, as well as patients and their families.

Marx, vice president of Visiting Nurses & Home Health Aides of Southeastern Connecticut Union, AFT Local 5119, said one union member has tested positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus disease, while three others are awaiting test results. One of the VNA's patients was released from Lawrence + Memorial Hospital after being treated for COVID-19, she said.

"A month ago, we were told we were not allowed to wear masks in homes. Two weeks ago, we were given Level 1 surgical masks," Marx told Blumenthal. "They might as well be toilet paper."

She said health care workers are supposed to wear the same mask as they move from patient to patient, house to house, until the mask becomes soiled.

"It's like having sex without a condom with multiple partners. It's no different," she said. "Two months ago, I would have been disciplined for wearing a mask like that. ... This is a virus we don't understand. We should be erring on the side of caution. We all deserve N95 masks."

The N95's name derives from its ability to filter out 95% of the microscopic particles in the air the wearer breathes in and out.

"We have pretty much the same protection as anyone walking around a grocery store," Marx said in an interview. "A lot of us are wearing cloth over our mask and making our own filters from coffee filters and putting them inside the mask."

Marx, who has not been tested for COVID-19, said only health care workers exhibiting more than one symptom of the disease are being tested.

She said she understands Yale New Haven Health, with which the VNA of Southeastern Connecticut and Lawrence + Memorial are affiliated, is preserving its supply of N95s in anticipation of a surge of COVID-19 patients. As of Tuesday, L+M was treating seven inpatients who had tested positive for the disease.

"I'm not saying they're not following the guidelines; this is what the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and DPH (state Department of Public Health) say is OK," Marx said. "Shame on the CDC and DPH."

All health care workers involved in the treatment of confirmed COVID-19 patients as well as those presumed to be infected are issued N95s, she acknowledged.

"VNA Southeastern Connecticut personal protective equipment standards and practices are aligned with the guidelines from the CDC," Dr. Richard Martinello, medical director of Yale New Haven Health's Infection Prevention Department, said in a statement. "This requires suspected COVID or COVID positive patients to be cared for by an appropriate care provider with personal protective equipment, including a respirator, eye protection, gowns and gloves. VNA Southeastern Connecticut has the appropriate supplies of this equipment and we are confident the care that patients receive from the VNA Southeastern Connecticut will be nothing less than exceptional during this challenging time."

Marx, the New London Democratic town chairwoman, is the Democratic candidate for the 20th District state Senate seat. Paul Formica, an East Lyme Republican, currently holds the seat.

"We'd like management to tell us we should presume everyone we come in contact with has the disease," she said. "Every worker would be thrilled to hear that."

Blumenthal joined Marx in calling on President Donald Trump to make full use of the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to produce N95s and the other personal protective equipment, or PPE, worn by health workers.

"You need only look at the IG's report," the senator said, referring to a March 23-27 survey of hospitals by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services. The survey documents PPE shortages at hospitals across the country and the steps they're taking to cope with them.

"This phenomenon is not limited to Connecticut. It's a nationwide scandal, a shameful tragedy. It's unconscionable and unacceptable," Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, are co-sponsors of Senate and House bills that would require the Department of Labor to adopt safety standards for health care workers and other employees at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Blumenthal said he would push to have the legislation made part of the next COVID-19 relief package Congress is expected to approve.


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