Nurses are holding protests at 15 hospitals in six states this week against what they say is "a lack of preparedness" by HCA Healthcare, a major hospital chain in the United States. National Nurses United, one of the largest nurse's unions in the country, is leading the protests and demanding that HCA provide nurses with the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need during the coronavirus pandemic.
"When we are infected, no one is safe," Kim Smith, a registered nurse in Texas who works in an intensive care unit now dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients, said in a news release announcing the protests. "When we are infected, we become a real danger of infecting everyone else around us, patients, hospital staff, and a risk to our own families."
Jean Ross, a registered nurse and co-president of National Nurses United (NNU), said nurses at various HCA hospitals have reported that they have had to work without proper protective equipment.
"Nurses say they are not informed when they (are) exposed to an infected patient," she said in the news release. "They are told to unsafely reuse masks and at one hospital they are even being told not to wear masks because it 'scared the patients.'"
The union said nurses are planning to protest Wednesday and Thursday at HCA hospitals in California, Florida, Missouri, Texas, Nevada and North Carolina. The demonstrations come after nurses protested last week in New York, Georgia, Illinois and several California cities, also over a lack of PPE.
The NNU claims that HCA, which employs 94,000 nurses in 21 states and the United Kingdom, "can well afford to be properly prepared for the pandemic." The health care provider has made over $23 billion in profits over the past decade, according to NNU; making it the second-largest hospital provider by revenue in the country, Modern Healthcare reports.
"For the wealthiest hospital corporation in the United States to show such disregard for the health and safety of its caregivers, is disgraceful and unconscionable," said Ross.
HCA Healthcare CEO Sam Hazen made almost $27 million last year — 478 times that of HCA's median employee salary, according to Modern Healthcare. On Tuesday, Hazen announced in a letter to staff that he is donating the entirety of his salary for the next two months to a company fund for employees struggling financially.
HCA didn't respond to CBS News' request for comment.
According to NNU co-president Deborah Burger, nurses across the country are being given different COVID-19 guidance — and varying degrees of protective equipment — depending on what health care facility they work at.
"Employers are telling nurses one thing, and hospitals say another, and science says another,".
The union said nurses at some HCA hospitals in Florida, where a majority of the planned protests are expected to take place, were told not to bring an N95 mask into work even if they had their own. Instead, nurses were issued one less protective surgical mask per shift.
The union specifically cites a need for more N95 respirator masks, which block at least 95 percent of very small particles, as well as full-body coverings like Powered Air Purifying Respirators, called PAPRs. According to the union, only 35% of nurses at HCA hospitals have access to N95 respirators — compared to 52% at other facilities, and only 16% of nurses have access to PAPRs — compared to 23% of all nurses.
Burger said that health care workers in most countries battling the coronavirus have been using PAPRs. Without these more stringent forms of PPE, she said, nurses are left virtually unprotected from the virus.
"You should have that jumpsuit … with the zipper seal, boots that go over work shoes, so that your clothing is protected from getting contaminated," she said. According to Burger, some nurses are making do with gowns to protect their clothes from carrying the virus, but since they are left open in the back they act as a "vector for spreading COVID-19."
Some hospitals, she said, have also told nurses to use bandanas or scarfs as face masks, but these homemade alternatives have not been proven to block respiratory droplets, which carry the virus.
The hospital's direction is in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's shifting guidance for PPE shortages. When masks are not available, the CDC says health care providers "might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort."