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BMC Nurses, Management Clash Over Mask Policy

A sign with directions for various departments of a hospital stands at a crossroads
Josh Landes
The main sign at Berkshire Medical Center's Pittsfield campus

Nurses at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts are demanding that all frontline staff at the hospital be outfitted with N95 facemasks.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association released a statement Monday about the hospital’s personal protective equipment policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re happy that there’s been some improvements there, that all staff will wear goggles or face shields to protect their eyes and a surgical mask to help reduced exposure from droplets in the air," said Mark Brodeur. He's a registered nurse at BMC, working in its intensive care unit, emergency department, critical care step-down unit, and recovery room.

Brodeur says the nurses want every staffer at the hospital to receive N95 masks — the highest level personal protective equipment available against the virus – not just those who directly interact with COVID-19 positive patients.

“Since a patient could have been exposed and shedding the virus without any symptoms, at this point in order to reduce the spread it’s important to assume that every single patient you have contact with has the coronavirus in order just to flatten that curve and ensure that the spread is slowed down as much as possible so that all of our resources aren’t overwhelmed at one time,” he told WAMC.

“As of a couple days ago, there had been 97 nurses quarantined for potential exposure to the virus," said Joe Markman, the associate director of communications for the MNA, the state’s largest nurses’ union. “More than half of those nurses do not work in units where there are COVID-19 patients or suspected COVID-19 patients. So what we know is that staff members are being exposed to the virus who don’t care for those patients, so all staff members need that protection.”

The union says 75 of the 97 nurses furloughed and instructed to self-quarantine by March 28th worked in units without access to N95 masks, which include the mother-baby unit, the surgical-orthopedic unit, the emergency department, and more.

“Berkshire Health Systems places the highest priority on the safety of our patients and staff and we have instituted personal protective equipment usage policies that exceed the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health," said Berkshire Health Systems Director of Media Relations Michael Leary.

The hospital says its current measures are sufficient, and that it doesn’t have enough N95 masks to provide to every staffer who comes in contact with a patient. It called the MNA’s evaluation of its supplies “considerably in error.”

“They claim Berkshire Health Systems would have a 28-day supply if all staff with any patient contact wore them," said Leary. "In fact, the burn rate would see us run out of N95 masks in nearly two weeks with a highly uncertain ability to rebuild the stock and maintain that level of usage going forward.”

Markman of the MNA says the nurses are calling for the masks to be used now before what Governor Charlie Baker describes as a coming surge of coronavirus cases between April 7 and April 17.

“In two weeks, there’ll be much more of a problem with the virus if today staff members are not protected,” Markman told WAMC.

He also took issue with the hospital citing new CDC guidelines.

“Those CDC guidelines were weakened," said Markman. "They were loosened by the CDC because of the shortage of P.P.E., and as an organization, the MNA is saying that we should seek the higher standard that was previous to the epidemic and is currently being put out by the World Health Organization that N95s should be used by frontline staff and they should be discarded and a staff member should get a new N95 mask among other guidelines.”

The nurses are also calling for the establishment of an outdoor triage area to be set up outside the emergency room to screen patients for coronavirus outside of the department. They say that hospital management claimed to be discussing the topic after a March 20th meeting with the union, but has yet to take action.

“We are following the guidelines from the CDC and DPH and we connect regularly – in fact, on a daily basis – with representatives from the DPH," said Leary.

As of Monday, the Massachusetts DPH reported more than 160 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Berkshire County, with some 5,700 cases and 56 deaths statewide.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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