25 Investigates: Nurses on front lines of coronavirus outbreak share concerns about staffing, supplies

BOSTON — A shortage of face masks, fueled by global fears of Coronavirus, is leaving frontline healthcare workers without essential supplies. And to mitigate the shortage, some Massachusetts hospitals are asking emergency room nurse to reuse N95 medical masks, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA).

25 Investigates’ Kerry Kavanaugh heard from nurses who say the shortage has led to some compromises in safety measures, and they fear that as the virus spreads across the Commonwealth hospitals will not have adequate levels of medical supplies and staffing.

“We don’t have any room in staffing for any bumps, said Ellen MacInnis, an emergency room nurse at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton. “We don’t have any room in staffing for increased acuity or increased volume.”

According to MacInnis, St. Elizabeth’s nurses are currently prepared and capable of handling a “typical” level of patients. But she wonders what will happen when the facility begins to see patients with serious cases of Coronavirus and how long supplies will last, particularly N95 masks.

"A lot of equipment has been diverted away from hospitals into the hands of private people that really have no need for them,” said the registered nurse. “It's just not helpful for somebody out in the public to have those N95 masks or buckets and buckets of hand sanitizer. Where that really does most good and keeps everyone healthy is here in the hospital.”

The face mask shortages have hit hospitals across the state and nation, according to the MNA, the union that represents nurses in the Commonwealth.

“There is a re-shifting, not in thinking or standards, but in recommendations temporarily until we can boost up our stock again of masks,” Christine Pontus, MNA’s Occupational Health and Safety specialist, told 25 Investigates.

Pontus says she has been hearing from concerned union members at some hospitals who have been told to re-use their N95 masks. Traditional safety standards suggest single use. But given the current circumstances, nurses worry there is not much they can do for now.

“That's the concern. Does reuse mean go from room to room? Some at CDC have said you can do that. But is it recommended? Not really. But we don't have much of a choice, said Pontus.

Another concern for union members is the shortage of Coronavirus testing kits. Currently, most patients are not being tested for the virus. Only severely ill individuals who meet CDC criteria are getting the test, and that could leave nurses exposed to asymptomatic people who may have the virus, she said.

Pontus worries that between staffing and supply shortages the Coronavirus outbreak could push the state’s healthcare system to its limits.

“Nurses are capable of doing the work, but they need the support. They cannot operate like this long term,” she added.

The nurses say they are identifying gaps that will be key to addressing if the coronavirus caseload continues to grow.

25 Investigates asked Steward Health Care, which operates St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, for comment. Our request was not answered in time for our story.

We also reached out to Partners Healthcare for some more perspective. We will update the story if we hear back from either group.

Late this afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the government was looking into whether they could sell industrial N95 masks to hospitals.