Three months ago, if Minnesota nurses used personal protective equipment the way they have been instructed to use it today — in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — they could have been fired or lost their licenses.
“This is totally foreign to what we were taught in nursing school,” said Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association and a registered nurse in an intensive care unit. “To be practicing the way we are now supposed to be practicing … is totally unacceptable.”
She was one of several nurses who spoke Tuesday about workplace safety concerns during the first remote meeting of the House Select Committee on Minnesota’s Pandemic Response and Rebuilding.
Many of the nurses expressed concern about the inherent contradiction of rationing PPE while they supposedly have enough, especially given the high volume of gloves, gowns, and masks needed when treating patients with COVID-19.
“We need transparency and truthfulness and not gaslighting,” said Tonya Moss.
Current guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control – which shape hospital policies – have been lowered, so that they are no longer based on best infectious disease practices, but on PPE availability, said Ericka Helling.
Practices vary from hospital to hospital, but some nurses are using surgical masks while working with COVID-19 patients, even though they do not offer sufficient protection; re-using N95 masks when they are available; and using cloth gowns instead of disposable paper gowns, the nurses said.
They are also sometimes doing lab work and day-to-day cleaning so hospitals can limit the amount of PPE that needs to be used, Helling said.
Mary Krinkie, vice president of government relations for the Minnesota Hospital Association, said PPE availability has improved significantly over the past month, but supply chain issues remain a concern.
“It is always changing,” she said. “If there’s a spike, you can go through PPE perhaps much faster than you thought you were going to.”
Some supplies purchased by the state may also not arrive when expected, or be diverted to another location, she said.
“This is not about the money, this is about being able to physically get our hands on this personal protective equipment,” she said.
If needed to address PPE shortages, the Minnesota Hospital Association would support a reversion to the governor’s previous peacetime emergency executive order limiting elective procedures as a way to conserve supplies, Krinkie said.
The resumption of elective procedures is “very alarming,” given the already limited supplies of PPE and the measures hospitals have taken to conserve their supplies, Turner said.
The select committee, chaired by House Speaker Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park), was formed to allow the House to continue conversations about the COVID-19 pandemic, even after wrapping up its regular legislative session late Sunday night.
It took no action, but intends to continue discussions about how state appropriations are being used to address PPE shortages and Department of Health standards. Other House committees may hold interim hearings, as well.
The pandemic has not only caused a public health emergency, but also a “policy challenge unlike any we have seen in my lifetime,” Hortman said.
“There’s a lot of follow up that will come out of this,” she said.