Spaced apart following social distancing guidelines, University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) employees and allies waved signs and chanted as passing cars honked in a show of support on April 15.
“What do we need?” one protester shouted. “PPE!” the crowd shouted back.
They assembled in front of the University of New Mexico Hospital (UNMH) to protest the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) accessible to the staff. The protest was organized by District 1199NM of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees as part of the larger Healthcare Workers National Day of Action.
Vanessa Johnson, a UNMH nurse working in one of the COVID-19 designated units, said she worries about both the safety of herself and coworkers while at work as well as the financial burdens that come with contracting the virus. Johnson said some quarantined nurses had to use their limited paid time off (PTO) or sick leave to offset their absence.
“We need to make sure that we have the PPE to protect us so that we’re not passing it on to other people within the hospital,” Johnson said. “We’ve had multiple nurses go on a 14-day mandated quarantine by the Department of Health, and they’re having to use their PTO or their sick leave.”
The group also said UNMH has not responded to requests for negotiation regarding their demands.
“Kate Becker, the CEO, refuses to meet with us,” Gilberta Miera, one of the protesters, said. “It’s a public hospital with public funding… and they act like a for-profit. They have no respect for the workers.”
Tommy Betts, a UNMH nurse and a protest organizer, said only nurses and doctors are being given protective N95 masks, while all other staff is only given surgical masks.
N95 masks filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, while surgical masks do not filter out smaller particles, like droplets, and aren’t sufficient respiratory protection. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is thought to be spread through the “respiratory droplets produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs.”
Betts said he’s worried about the safety of staff not receiving N95 masks.
“This is an aerosolized virus that persists in the air and on surfaces for hours. People shouldn’t be cleaning our COVID ICU rooms without an N95,” he said.
In a statement addressing the protest, UNMH said they are providing employees with daily updates on the status of PPE supply and are reusing equipment when appropriate to ensure they have an adequate supply.
Imran Khan, a UNMH nurse and organizer, said nurses and doctors are expected to reuse their N95 masks, which the CDC recommends to be discarded after a single patient encounter.
“The manufacturers have clearly stated this is an unsafe practice and the masks are not intended for reuse, yet we still do it,” Khan said. “We are basically being given N95 masks by name rather than a quality N95 mask.”
Insufficient access to PPE isn’t limited to UNMH. Healthcare workers at PRESNow, Presbyterian Hospital’s urgent and emergency care center, told a similar story.
One PRESNow nurse, who received direction from his supervisor to not talk to any news organizations, said only nurses and doctors with possible COVID-19 patients are being given N95 masks, which they’re expected to reuse.
“We are given one (N95 mask) per shift, but the expectation is that we should be saving them for multiple shifts, which goes against manufacturer recommendations,” he said.
New Mexico isn’t in a unique position. Hospitals across the country are dealing with PPE shortages.
On March 25, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued two public health orders designed to protect the state’s PPE supply. One order prohibits non-essential health services, while the other prohibits health care providers and medical suppliers from selling or otherwise distributing equipment without prior approval from the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH).
Healthcare workers said they recognize the possibility that the state will run out of PPE.
“If the hospital (UNMH) cannot supply all staff with PPE, okay, but be transparent about that,” Betts said. “Recognize the hazards you are exposing your employees to.”
As of April 15, the total number of COVID-19 cases in New Mexico stands at 1,484, with 90 active hospitalizations.
Liam DeBonis is a photographer and reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LiamDebonis.
Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @bladvs.