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Some Hospitals Defy Cuomo Panel Mask-on-Demand Order, Nurses Charge

Nurses protest a lack of protective measures during the coronavirus outbreak outside the Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx.
Nurses protest a lack of protective measures during the coronavirus outbreak outside the Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx, April 17, 2020.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Nurses in New York City charge that some hospitals are flouting a directive by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 task force requiring new N95 face masks on-demand for medical workers.

Meanwhile, public hospital nurses are furious over an edict requiring that staffers obtain a doctor’s note if they call in sick — a policy change revealed Monday by THE CITY.

“Shame on the health care system,” fumed Dawn Cardello, a nurse at Northwell-run Staten Island University Hospital North. “I’ve worked at SIU North for 32 years and it’s disheartening to see that everything that is needed, the tools that you need to care for the patient, which is the priority, you have to fight for.”

An example of an N95 respirator mask.
N95 masks
Lunx/Shutterstock

Nurses, doctors and technicians working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic in hospitals across New York City have been complaining for weeks that they’re forced to perform under dangerous conditions without proper protective gear.

They’ve had to ration and frequently re-use the high-quality N95 masks, which are considered the best guard against the virus.

On Monday, the governor’s task force issued a “directive” declaring: “When a direct care giver in a hospital asks for a new N95 mask, they will receive one at least once a day.”

The directive was immediately forwarded to hospitals across the state by the Greater New York Hospital Association and the Healthcare Association of New York State.

‘It’s Intimidating’

But a survey by the New York State Nurses Association this week found “a considerable number of RNs providing direct care to COVID-19 patients do not receive a new N95 respiratory mask every work day in contravention to Gov. Cuomo’s directive,” according to union spokesperson Carl Ginsburg.

“We can only hope that greater effort can be made,” Ginsburg said. “Without protective equipment neither nurses nor patients can be protected and the virus will remain in the hospitals — it’s that simple.”

Cardello, a local representative of the New York State Nurses Association, said nothing’s changed at SIU North, where new masks remain hard to come by.

Asked for comment, Northwell, which operates SIU North, Lenox Hill, Maimonides and Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat, pointed THE CITY to a memo sent to all its hospital supervisors advising that medical staff must receive a mask if they ask for one.

“Based on this guidance, we will replace uncontaminated N95 respirators once each day for those providing direct patient care who request one,” the memo reads. “As leaders, you are expected to fulfill these requests at every care location as appropriate.”

But, Cardello said, “There has not been a consistent plan,” adding that nurses are getting the runaround, with masks still scarce.

“Some managers are saying it’s readily available in a box, some say you have to go downstairs and sign for it and when you have to sign for it,” she said. “It’s intimidating.”

City’s Sour Note

Meanwhile, public hospital nurses held a protest outside Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx Friday blasting the Health and Hospitals Corporation’s new protocol requiring they obtain a physician’s note certifying they’re sick to qualify for paid leave.

The text of the order, issued last Friday, suggested that some of the absences for sickness were not legitimate, stating, “In some places we have also identified very high rates of call outs and absences that do not appear to be consistent with patterns of COVID infection.”

With ambulance sirens repeatedly interrupting, Sean Petty, a veteran nurse at Jacobi, demanded HHC eliminate the doctor’s note requirement — calling it “a profound insult (that) has just been added to our numerous injuries.”

“After all we’ve given to this fight, this is truly a slap in the face,” he said. “This is a dishonor to our service as public hospital nurses.”

A memo to public hospital workers said leaders "identified very high rates of call outs and absences that do not appear to be consistent with patterns of COVID infection."
A memo to public hospital workers said leaders “identified very high rates of call outs and absences that do not appear to be consistent with patterns of COVID infection.”
Obtained by THE CITY

HHC officials released data Wednesday asserting that 924 medical workers in the 11-hospital system have tested positive for the virus, but they have to date declined to say how many staff have died due to COVID-19. At least five public hospital nurses have succumbed to the virus, according to their union.

At Bellevue Hospital in Midtown, nurses are re-using N95s and juggling alarming caseloads of both intensive care unit patients and general medical patients.

‘It’s Horrendous’

The same holds true at SIU North, Cardello said. Normally the ratio for ICU should be no more than two patients per nurse. It’s now up to three and four ICU cases per nurse. And the ratio in general medical is now about one to eight with patients who require near-ICU-level care.

“It’s horrendous,” Cardello said. “It’s not so much the amount of patients. It’s the acuity. They’re very sick patients.”

“It’s scary,” she added. “The nurses are doing a phenomenal job with the tools that they are given. They are doing the best that they can, but we’re not sure how long we can sustain this.”

And six weeks after the first New Yorker tested positive for COVID-19, SIU is just now beginning to systematically test medical workers. Cardello said her union is aware of more than 20 nurses at SIU North who were told to self-quarantine after experiencing symptoms but have not been tested.

“From the very beginning they’ve had a hard time being tested,” she said. “We’ve been asking for testing to be done on our premises for weeks.”

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