Work in the Time of Coronavirus: Lack of PPE Makes it Impossible to “Do No Harm”

A nurse in a city in central North Carolina reveals working conditions at her hospital and how her relationship with her workplace has changed. She and her coworkers are unable to care for patients without potentially exposing themselves, their families, the patients, and each other to COVID-19.
  • Left Voice | 
  • April 9, 2020
Photo by Luigi Morris / Protest at Mount Sinai Hospital

In nursing school, I never considered the possibility of a pandemic affecting my practice as a RN here in America; mass causality, mass trauma, terrorism and bio-terrorism, sure, but a pandemic? It never crossed my mind. When I chose the organization I wanted to work for as a new grad, I picked one where I knew there was a culture of care and support for employees. I still work in that same organization, in the same unit, and until now I genuinely believed they had my best interest as a nurse at heart. 

COVID-19 has rocked my faith in my country, and that same hospital system. Policy is vague, and change is persistent. As of Wednesday, policy states we are required to wear masks every time we’re within 6 feet of a patient or visitor, who are only present on an exceptional basis. The policy doesn’t address interaction with providers or other hospital employees, though we’re all aware that the CDC encourages wearing masks and staying a minimum of 6 feet apart. We are issued a mask, a brown paper lunch sack, and told that we are to use this same mask for 5 shifts.  It is a simple surgical mask. No face shield, eye protection, or infamous N95 to be seen. A week ago, these masks were single use. They cannot be decontaminated. They offer no protection from airborne pathogens. Every exhale fogs my glasses, further impeding my ability to perform my job and reminding me that the “protective equipment” I’m wearing is far from airtight. We are offered no science behind the changes, and are simply told that “it’s safe,” without any support or proof.  

The lack of transparency surrounding COVID only incites more fear in staff and further impacts patient care.  Do they think patients can’t hear us whisper to one another, wondering where our sick coworkers are, and how many active cases of the virus are in the hospital? I can see the fear in the doctors’ eyes.  Men and women I respect are shaken to the core, divided between providing care to their patients and their oath to “do no harm.” Can you do no harm when you know you could be carrying this potentially fatal virus from bedside to bedside, and to your colleagues? 

I have isolated myself even from my immediate family at this point, and I am far from alone in my decision.  Many of us have chosen to take this step, if we can, to protect our loved ones, knowing that exposure is almost inevitable, and it is likely many of us will contract this illness due to the hasty decisions and careless changes to policy being made by government organizations and the healthcare system for which we work. Healthcare will change in response to this pandemic, and my hope at this point is that the expectations of healthcare workers will change too.

Out of concern of retaliation from her employer, the author has chosen to keep her identity anonymous.

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