(USA TODAY) – A nurse at a hospital in Kentucky said she was suspended for insubordination for refusing to treat COVID-19 patients when the hospital would not supply her with a protective respirator.
Kenyatta Ervin, 49, said she previously had health conditions like pneumonia and asthma and needs the protection of an N95 mask, which have been in short supply.
She said in an interview Monday that supervisors would give her only a surgical mask, a loose-fitting disposable device that isn’t sealed around the nose and mouth.
In a phone interview with her lawyer, Thomas Clay, Ervin said she was sent home from Norton Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Louisville on March 31 for refusing to provide patient care.
“That is absolutely not true,” she said. “I want to care for my patients. I know they need me.”
CDC, nursing unions clash over mask policy
Maggie Roetker, Norton Healthcare’s director of public relations, said its hospitals have followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the “right mask for the right task.”
Citing a national shortage of N95 masks, the CDC last month said they should be reserved for the riskiest situations, such as intubations and respiratory treatments, where fine aerosol is likely to be generated, and that looser-fitting surgical masks be used for routine care.
Nursing unions strongly opposed the relaxed guidelines. Until the change, CDC recommended that health care workers interacting with coronavirus patients or suspected cases wear N95 respirators, along with gowns, gloves and eye protectors.
The CDC’s website says N95 ventilators are sealed and filter out at least 95% of airborne particles including large and small particles” while a surgical mask “does NOT provide the wearer with a reliable level of protection from inhaling smaller airborne particles and is not considered respiratory protection.”
Roetker said following the CDC’s new guidance “is really important as we safely work to ensure everyone has access to the necessary” personal protective equipment, “given the well-documented national shortage.”
She also said that if employees need to be reassigned because of health concerns, “we reassign them,” and many have been.
Ervin, who began work at Norton 15 months ago and has been a nurse for 20 months, said she has suffered two bouts of pneumonia and severe asthma for which she twice had to be intubated. She said she had no objection, however, to being reassigned from a surgical unit twice last month to work on a “hot floor” with suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients.
She said the first day, March 26, she was given an N95 mask, but on her second day she received only a surgical mask.
When she declined to treat patients without the respirator, she was sent home, Clay said.
She said she has been required since to take vacation days and doesn’t know what will happen when they run out.
According to Clay, Ervin was given a “Daisy Award” for outstanding nursing on Jan. 31.
Louisville Councilman David James said he talked to Norton Healthcare on Ervin’s behalf and that officials promised to resolve the dispute, likely moving her to a less-risky assignment.
Ervin not the only one
The CDC guidelines on N95 masks have divided medical experts.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said N95 respirators should not be used for routine care, according to a newsletter published by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
But Michael Osterholm, director of the center, at the University of Minnesota, said until there is evidence that N95s are unnecessary, health care workers should use them.
In New Jersey, nurse Dawn Kulach returned to work following a bout of pneumonia, wearing an N95 mask and plastic gloves to deal with the coronavirus and the patients with COVID-19 she expected to handle.
Her supervisors at Virtua Voorhees Hospital told her to take off the mask and gloves, or go home, Kulach said Monday.
In Chicago, a nurse quit her job at an area hospital late last month when she was assigned to a COVID-19 unit and was told she couldn’t wear her own mask, according to MedPageToday, a trade publication.
Imaris Vera said the hospital also cited CDC guidelines.