Nurses at Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics in California could be fired immediately for wearing their own face masks, according to unions representing nurses at the facilities. The news comes after nurses were ordered to reuse disposable protective gear to save supplies in the face of shortages brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
The California Nurses Association and National Nurses United sent a flyer to members noting that Kaiser had threatened nurses with firing if they wear their own N95 masks, which offer a high level of protection from airborne contaminants, to work. “Kaiser has told nurses that if they’re seen wearing their personal N95 masks, they could be fired ‘on the spot’ for insubordination,” the flyer read. The unions did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Kaiser spokesperson Marc Brown said firing nurses for using their own N95 gear is not the company’s official policy. Asked if nurses would not be disciplined if they wear their own masks, Brown did not provide an answer. “That is not our policy. We provide the appropriate medical-grade protective equipment for the protocols and level of patient care being provided. We cannot assure the integrity of protective equipment not provided by Kaiser Permanente,” Brown wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “We want them to wear equipment we can be sure is effective.”
Kaiser nurses last week received guidelines downgrading protective standards and giving instructions on how to reuse certain types of eyewear and masks. That change came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month downgraded from protocols for airborne contamination to protocols for droplet contamination, noting that the change was based on supply rather than science.
Close to 100 nurses and family members gathered outside Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center on Monday night to protest the new guidelines, saying that they put both patients and critical staff at risk. Staff at the center have been caring for patients from the Grand Princess cruise ship, which had at least 21 passengers test positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Local police and Kaiser facility security observed the protest, according to one nurse who attended and asked for anonymity to avoid retaliation from their employer. California went into lockdown last week, meaning that large gatherings are strongly discouraged.
“For our workplace to be saying, ‘Hey, you know, we’re taking the bare minimum that we can give you guys and giving it to you,’ was really disheartening,” the nurse said.
As nurses told The Intercept last week, staff at the Oakland facility have also downgraded the level of protection of the gowns they’re using to care for staff. “The gowns that they are giving us have dramatically decreased in their protective ability as those have kind of become, quote-unquote, unavailable,” the nurse said. “The gowns that we’re currently being given, they went from being less permeable to totally permeable gowns that have an open back. So those gowns, how are those supposed to protect us when we’re going in rooms, we’re supposed to maneuver between equipment to try and care for these patients, and our entire backsides is being exposed. And then we’re going out and sitting in chairs. Completely inadequate.”
Kaiser said it has the necessary supplies to protect nurses, but the nurse said that hasn’t always felt like the case. “We were not having, it felt like, adequate supply. You could get what you needed, you had to fight for it. And it’s exhausting,” the nurse said.
With materials in short supply, things have gone missing, and so management is locking them away, they said. “What happens when the person with the key to that office isn’t there at the moment? Delay in patient care. … That’s just extra time spent searching for these things.”