UC Irvine nurses and their union’s leaders Friday expressed concern about a shortage of personal protection equipment, a furlough of some nurses and the continuation of elective surgeries as recently as last week during the coronavirus pandemic.

UCI officials say they do not have a shortage of personal protective equipment, but are being conservative now to prepare for an expected surge that Orange County healthcare officials say could hit the area in a week or two.

“We’ve been told by our department that we’re supposed to reuse personal protective equipment,” said Nilu Patel, a UCI nurse anesthetist.

Patel said the nurses in her specialty are “at great risk of contracting COVID-19” because they participate in intubating patients with severe cases of coronavirus and cannot breathe on their own.

“We have to re-use our N95 masks over and over again,” Patel said.

At times the nurses have been “wearing another mask to cover it in an effort to re-use it,” Patel said.

“If we are intubating a positive COVID-19 patient you can get another mask, but you get this sense of not being supportive of us because we have a difficult time obtaining another mask,” Patel said.

Nurses in other hospitals are using N95 masks, but at UCI, “We’re the only ones being told it’s not necessary,” Patel said.

“Droplet precaution masks” until recently were being touted as “sufficient” at UCI, but “that doesn’t follow the standard of care for other (University of California hospitals),” Patel said.

Two days ago, UCI officials said the N95 masks were advised for all coronavirus cases, Patel said.

Patel said some orderlies are moving patients around without masks.

“Now healthcare workers are being put in a situation of having to move patients in an unsafe manner,” she said.

The hospital was “still doing elective surgeries,” Patel said.

For the past two weeks, Patel was still assisting on knee scopes, for instance, she said.

“The whole operating team is wasting masks,” she said of elective surgeries such as that. “These are possible carriers too,” she said of the patients, who could be asymptomatic.

When nurses have raised concerns, they were told, “Do not question the decisions that are being made regarding scheduled procedures,” Patel said.

The hospital ran out of eye shield last week, Patel said. That’s concerning because the virus can be transmitted into a tear duct, she said.

Patel was also concerned about some nurses, such as herself, being furloughed because some people have discussed taking jobs elsewhere. Patel said some are worried about burning through sick time while they are healthy.

“Furloughing our specialty is really shortsighted, and we’re the only UC doing it,” she said.

Patel said nurses in her specialty remain helpful because even though they may not be working on elective surgeries, they are skilled at operating machinery used to assist coronavirus patients and can also manage critically ill patients. Anesthetists are trained at intubating, which is particularly helpful for patients who have trouble breathing, she said.

John Murray, a spokesman for UCI health, issued a statement saying the hospital is “committed to providing a safe environment for staff, physicians and patients during this extraordinary and unprecedented international health crisis.”

The statement added, “That commitment includes providing every healthcare worker with extensive guidance and training in the appropriate use of personal protective equipment. The greatest asset in this fight is our staff, and our top priority is to protect them and their colleagues, and minimize the likelihood of disease transmission.”

The hospital is “permitting all staff and healthcare workers who wish to wear masks to do so. Staff who interact with patients with COVID-19 illness or who are suspected must wear the extensive PPE we have provided for this purpose.”

The hospital does not have a shortage of the equipment, but officials want to make sure they have enough to accommodate the expected surge in cases.

All of Orange County’s congressional representatives signed on to a letter to Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar pleading for more PPE supplies.

“It is our understanding that only 15% of resources requested by California counties have been shipped out due to the scarcity of resources provided by federal agencies to the state,” the letter reads. “These concerns are compounded by reports of malfunctioning equipment that has been delivered to the state.”

The representatives implored the cabinet members to “work diligently with states and local governments to ensure healthcare workers and first responders on the frontlines are properly equipped to save lives and combat COVID-19.”

The representatives also requested how much PPE was available nationally and for California.

The letter was signed by Reps. Harley Rouda, Lou Correa, Alan Lowenthal, Linda Sanchez, Gil Cisneros Jr., Mike Levin and Katie Porter.

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