Nurses Left Vulnerable To COVID-19: 'We're Not Martyrs Sacrificing Our Lives' Many nurses say they've been fighting the coronavirus pandemic without proper safety equipment, and unions and professional groups are demanding change.

Nurses Left Vulnerable To COVID-19: 'We're Not Martyrs Sacrificing Our Lives'

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Thousands of nurses have gotten sick during the COVID-19 pandemic after caring for contagious patients. Even now some hospitals and nursing homes are rationing N95 masks and protective gowns. As Brian Mann reports, critics say nurses might have been better protected if government officials and hospitals had heeded early warnings.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Weeks before the crush of COVID-19 patients turned up at U.S. hospitals, the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned the supply chain for N95 masks and protective gowns was unraveling.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: The world is facing severe disruption in the market for personal protective equipment.

MANN: Here in the U.S., some frontline health care workers worried protective equipment, known as PPE, was in dangerously short supply. Bonnie Castillo, who heads the nation's largest nurses union, spoke with NPR in February.


BONNIE CASTILLO: Our main concern is that the health care employers are not prepared. Only 30% of the nurses are saying that there's sufficient supplies in stock.

MANN: But during those crucial early weeks of the pandemic, the Trump administration was sending a very different message, downplaying the threat of COVID-19. Here's President Trump February 10.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: By April or during the month of April - the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus, so that would be a good thing. But we're in great shape in our country.

MANN: Hospitals also sounded confident they were doing the right things to be ready. Nancy Foster with the American Hospital Association spoke with NPR in late February.


NANCY FOSTER: Everyone I've spoken to has taken substantial steps to make sure that they are prepared.

MANN: But NPR found that in February and early March, little was done by the federal government or hospitals to expand the overall supply of PPE. They focused instead on rationing equipment and relaxing federal safety guidelines so gowns and masks could be reused, even after being exposed to contagious patients. By mid-March, when emergency rooms started filling up with COVID-19 patients, nurses like Benny Mathew heard this.

BENNY MATHEW: We'll give you two N95 per week, Monday and Thursdays.

MANN: At Mathew's hospital, Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, nurses stored their N95 masks in paper bags. On March 21, Mathew tested positive COVID-19, and he says a lot of his co-workers got really sick.

MATHEW: Some of them were in the hospitals for almost a week. Many nurses carried this virus to home and made their partners, kids and parents sick.

MANN: Remember; the American Hospital Association's Nancy Foster told NPR in February hospitals were prepared. She now acknowledges they didn't grasp the scale of PPE shortages. But Foster says even then in February, her organization was urging President Trump to use his authority to force American companies to make more masks and gowns.

FOSTER: Calling for the implementation of the Defense Production Act at that point in order to really ramp up the ability of this country to make PPE.

MANN: In fact, hospitals and other health care industry groups didn't send that letter to President Trump until much later, on March 21. That's six weeks after the WHO warned of global PPE shortages, long after rationing in U.S. hospitals had begun. President Trump, meanwhile, declined to mobilize national production of PPE, suggesting in late March adequate supplies existed but were being stolen or misused.


TRUMP: It's not - I don't think it's hoarding. I think it's maybe worse than hoarding. But check it out.

MANN: NPR could find no evidence PPE supplies had been stolen on any significant scale. The government records show numerous federal agencies knew weeks earlier PPE shortages were looming. Instead of working aggressively to boost domestic production, the Trump administration finally moved in late March into early April to buy more masks and gowns overseas, which meant they were competing with hospitals and states for the same scarce equipment. Bonnie Castillo, who raised the alarm about PPE back in February, says nurses are angry, and they now fear a second wave of COVID-19 patients will hit before hospitals are ready.


CASTILLLO: Nurses are not afraid to care for our patients if we have the right protections, but we're not martyrs sacrificing our lives because our government and our employers didn't do their job.

MANN: Nurses here in New York filed a lawsuit over PPE shortages. The hospital industry acknowledges critical PPE shortages remain in parts of the U.S.

Brian Mann, NPR News, New York.


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