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Washington nurses concerned for health as hospitals face mask shortages

Some nurses are told to wear the same mask for a 12-hour period, when typically they would go through 36 in that same time.

SEATTLE — Western Washington hospitals are scrambling to find more surgical masks and respirators as the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the state. 

Nurses across the region are raising concerns about the critical shortage of safety gear as some are directed to re-use the same mask for an extended period, or go without.

Some worry it could put them at increased risk to contract the coronavirus from patients.

Documents provided to KING 5 show an area provider telling staff their mask supply is down to 24-48 hours at current usage and to reserve masks for the patient, not staff, in certain situations. That same hospital is working to get more masks from dentists, veterinarians and construction companies, documents show.

RELATED: Real-time updates: 24 coronavirus deaths among 267 cases in Washington

Another provider, MultiCare Puget Sound, said all six hospitals in the area are experiencing mask shortages and have implemented some mask reuse policies. They are working with suppliers and the state to get more.

Marce Edwards, MultiCare’s executive director for corporate communications, said they know it’s not ideal, but necessary to make limited supplies last until more arrive.

“Our mask reuse policy was implemented with infection prevention specialists and epidemiologists to make sure it was a safe process,” she said. “We feel like it’s the right thing to do to make sure we have some masks because we don’t want to get to a point where we have no masks.”

A nurse from a MultiCare hospital in Tacoma expressed concern with the modifications. She said an ICU nurse will often go through 36 masks in a 12-hour shift and is now being asked to use a single one through the same span of time.

A copy of the policy supplied to KING 5 shows staff are instructed to reuse personal protective equipment (PPE) until it 'becomes soiled or saturated with moisture,' then request replacement supplies.

“My biggest concern is that too many hospital workers will get sick at the same time,” said the nurse, who asked not to be named. “If too many workers are sick, then we literally would not be able to save people. We are afraid, in the ICU, that our care will have to be rationed soon.”

“How is the medical community supposed to keep up with the demand if we can’t keep ourselves safe?” the nurse said.

Harborview Medical Center in Seattle said it has not implemented a mask reuse policy but is carefully managing its supply to stay above water.

The Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA), which represents nearly 20,000 workers, said it’s hearing from concerned members-- nurses being told to reuse papers masks, being instructed to not wear masks unless there is a confirmed coronavirus case and being told to re-use face shields without guidance on proper cleaning.

“We need to ensure that nurses and other healthcare workers are getting the needed protective equipment to do their jobs safely,” said Ruth Schubert, communications director with the WSNA. “…We understand that this is a rapidly evolving situation, but the questions and concerns of the frontline caregivers need to be addressed as promptly as possible.”

She also said nurses reported being allotted only one mask per shift.

“Masks need to be changed between patients,” Schubert said.

The state requested and received 233,000 respirators and 200,000 masks from the Strategic National Stockpile last week, said Casey Katims, Gov. Inslee’s liaison to the federal government. They expect to receive 129,000 more respirators and 308,000 masks later this week from the same source.

He said once they arrive, the state Department of Health allocates them based on counties with confirmed coronavirus cases and need.

Katims said the Department of Health has provided guidance for making the most of limited resources “during a challenging time.”

“We are working diligently with the federal government to communicate when we have needs for additional PPE and we want to continue to work with them to make sure Washington’s needs are met,” Katims said.

“As a nurse, patient safety is my number one priority,” said another Seattle-area nurse. “But as resources continue to get more scarce, specifically masks and other respiratory protection, it is vital that we also keep ourselves safe during patient care while continuing to contribute to conservatory effort such as reusing masks when appropriate.”

What are coronavirus symptoms?

The symptoms of coronavirus are similar to the flu or colds. Symptoms include a fever, cough, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

The severity of symptoms ranges significantly. Some cases are very mild with symptoms similar to the common cold, and some cases are more like severe pneumonia that require hospitalization. Most deaths have been reported in older adults who had other health conditions, according to DOH.

Symptoms may appear as soon as two days after being exposed to the coronavirus or as long as 14 days.

A new Washington call center has been set up to answer your questions about COVID-19. If you have questions about how the virus spreads, what is being done in Washington state, and what you can do if you have symptoms, call 1-800-525-0127 and press #.