Nurses plead for protective gear to fight virus outbreak

Nurses stand on a hill outside the emergency entrance to Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx borough of New York, Saturday, March 28, 2020.(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

NEW YORK (AP) — Nurses battling New York's coronavirus outbreak made anguished pleas Saturday for more protective equipment, saying officials' claims of adequate supplies are falling short of reality.

At a news conference outside city-run Jacobi Hospital, nurses called for more masks and other gear to safeguard themselves against the virus that has so far sickened more than 44,000 people and killed over 500 in New York state, mostly in the city.

At least one health care worker, Mount Sinai West assistant nursing manager Kious Kelly, 36, has died of the virus. Others also have fallen ill around the metropolitan region.

Jacobi nurses said managers at the Bronx hospital have been rationing protective equipment, making them unable to change out the high-end particle-filtering masks known as N95s as often as they should.

“We have a number of workers -- two in this hospital, two nurses -- fighting for their lives in the ICUs right now,” pediatric nurse Sean Petty said, blaming a scarcity of equipment.

City officials have insisted there’s enough protective equipment for roughly the next week, though they’re worried for the weeks after. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city delivered 200,000 N95 masks to hospitals Friday, with 800,000 more to come Saturday, along with loads of less-protective surgical masks and other gear.

The city hospital system’s president, Dr. Mitchell Katz, said at a news conference Friday that staffers working exclusively with coronavirus patients could conserve supplies of N95 masks by wearing one throughout their shifts, with surgical masks over it that can be changed more frequently. Some others have chosen to wear helmets with reusable air filters -- somewhat like “a Darth Vader mask,” he said.

In some patient-care settings, a surgical mask will suffice, he said, “but if you feel more comfortable wearing an N95 mask, we're good with that.”

Petty said policies on protective equipment were being driven by shortages, not science, and he slammed officials as subjecting medical workers to avoidable risks of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“We will not let any health official or government official say that we have enough” protective equipment, he said, “until every health care worker has an N95 for every time they interact with a COVID-19 patient.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.