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Nurses: Two Catholic hospitals don't have enough protective equipment

St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown.

St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown. Credit: Google Maps

Nurses at some Catholic Health Services hospitals on Long Island are still reporting substandard protective equipment conditions, union representatives say, even as other facilities cite improvements in mask and gown supplies.

The New York State Nurses Association, the state's largest union for registered nurses with more than 40,000 members, this week criticized St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown and St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson. The union said nurses at both places are being put at increased risk of COVID-19 infection by having to extend use of their N95 respiratory masks for up to a week and — unlike at other hospitals — by wearing the same isolation gown for entire shifts, rather than disposing them after each patient encounter.

Newsday reported last week that nearly 1,200 hospital employees across Nassau and Suffolk counties had tested positive for coronavirus, with nurses blaming shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

While reuse of this equipment was happening more frequently at Long Island hospitals early this month, at the height of the pandemic, union leaders said the two Catholic Health facilities are continuing the practices even as state and local officials assert that most everyone should now have a sufficient supply.

"When everybody else is getting better, they're getting worse," Michael Chacon, the nurses association’s Long Island program representative and a registered nurse, said in an interview Wednesday.

He said the problem is compounded by the union’s inability to get answers from St. Catherine and St. Charles administrators on the status of the current PPE supply. The union said it does not have the same level of complaints about St. Joseph Hospital in Bethpage, the other Catholic Health facility where it has members.

In an April 7 email to union leaders, provided to Newsday, St. Catherine human resources director Onorina Saporito wrote: “Based on the information that the union provided to the outside media, it is not in our best interest to continue to meet on a regular basis.”

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Newsday published a story on April 4 detailing nurses’ fear about reusing equipment that included comments from Chacon and a St. Charles nurse who serves as a union chapter president.

“When the employees ask for answers, they don’t get them," Chacon said of St. Catherine and St. Charles officials. "Whether they’re hoarding it or they don’t have it, I honestly don’t know.”

Chris Hendriks, a spokeswoman for Catholic Health Services, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Catholic Health was also the largest hospital network that did not provide Newsday last week with data on how many of its employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

In the April 4 story, Hendriks said Catholic Health hospitals had “adequate supplies,” had recently installed an ultraviolet light sterilizing system for N95 masks and that “large quantities of masks, face shields and gowns are being distributed to all CHS facilities.”

Stony Brook University Hospital and the independent Long Island Community Hospital in East Patchogue, where nurses had previously worn garbage bags as additional protection, told Newsday on Monday and Tuesday that they are not currently asking staff to reuse isolation gowns.

At Northwell Health, which runs 10 hospitals in Nassau and Suffolk counties, “isolation gowns are typically changed multiple times in the course of the day,” said system spokesman Terry Lynam.

All three hospitals or systems said they currently have adequate supplies of N95 masks, isolation gowns and other PPE. Northwell this week also began honoring front-line employee requests to replace even unsoiled  N95 masks at the end of each shift, Lynam said. 

In addition to representing staff at three Catholic Health hospitals on Long Island, the New York State Nurses Association also has members at five Northwell facilities, where it confirmed that nurses are not generally forced to re-wear isolation gowns or share them among staff visiting the same room.

“Is there an inequity? Absolutely,” said Chacon of the PPE policies at the two systems.

A St. Catherine nurse, who asked to remain anonymous because staff has been directed not to speak to media, said that she and her colleagues are largely in the dark as to the hospital’s equipment stockpile.

She confirmed Chacon’s statement that the hospital, as of Wednesday, was still asking employees to use the same disposable plastic isolation gown for an entire shift. She added that nurses were also no longer getting an additional cloth gown to wear under the plastic gown and now must wear another isolation gown shared among staff seeing a particular room’s COVID-19 patients.

“The anxiety of going to work in general is so high and then when you have an administration that keeps taking away things that were giving us some sort of comfort, it just makes everything go through the roof,” she said.

A St. Joseph nurse, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that despite the union's assertion that PPE reuse isn't as bad at that facility, staff there has the same direction to wear one isolation gown all day.

"It's a really horrific, unsafe situation," she said, noting that colleagues at Northwell facilities have told her they are able to change isolation gowns “appropriately, which is between each patient, each encounter.”

The nurses association on Saturday pressed state officials to immediately distribute protective equipment stockpiles to any facilities that are still reusing them under federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “crisis capacity strategies.”

Under these guidelines, N95 masks can be reused for multiple days unless subject to aerosol generating procedures, such as intubation and others prompting infected patients to dispel respiratory droplets. But even the CDC cautions that disposal isolation gowns aren’t ideal for repeated use because “the ties and fasteners typically break during doffing.”

“To date we have not had the staff reusing isolation gowns,” said Stony Brook spokeswoman Kali Chan. “We have always had enough supply for the staff to receive a new one.”

Long Island Community Hospital spokeswoman Katherine Heaviside said in a statement that officials secured additional gowns on April 6 and since then “isolation gowns are not being used more than once.”

Lisa Black, Suffolk County's deputy county executive overseeing distribution of personal protective equipment to hospitals, nursing homes, first responders and other front-line workers, said that the overseas suppliers of most PPE shifted operations last month to produce more N95 masks after they were identified as the most scarce and critical item.

"Which was very helpful," Black said. "But it was to the detriment of the gowns."

Suffolk is working with Nassau officials on a joint procurement of additional isolation gowns, Black said, in hopes of filling what she called a "void."

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who recently helped secure Suffolk more than 250,000 N95 masks from the White House and more than 250,000 surgical masks from commercial suppliers, noted that each hospital has its own supply chain for equipment and uses its own discretion for distribution of what it receives from the government.

But he noted that St. Charles and St. Catherine should have each received more than 14,000 N95 masks from the federal government delivery and that he believes no hospital is forcing staff to reuse those masks for multiple days without at least an approved sterilization process.

Catholic Health officials previously confirmed its use of a sterilization process, but the nurses union says it would prefer more frequent replacements, if state and federal leaders are saying supply should no longer be an issue.

“I do know that over the course of last week, in particular, there was a ton more PPE coming in,” Zeldin said. “I saw the receipts on the back end. So I do know that it all came in.”

Suffolk County Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), whose district includes St. Catherine, recently helped the hospital procure additional protective equipment from the county. He said he understands the complaints of nurses but says he also sympathizes with the administration’s efforts to deal with an unprecedented pandemic.

“In a perfect world, you want to use the best stuff you can every single time,” Trotta said. “But, guess what? It’s not a perfect world right now. It’s a screwed-up world right now.”

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