With N-95 collection drive, nurses gear up for challenge ahead

MNA members and staff loaded the Teamsters Local 120 semi truck with N-95 masks and other personal protective equipment donated during their collection drive in St. Paul this week. (Facebook photo)

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota grows higher, prompting the state’s health care system to brace for a wave of hospitalizations, registered nurses are holding a collection drive at their union headquarters in St. Paul to stock up on personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies.

The public’s support in just the first two days of the drive, Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner said.

“I think we got 30,000 masks on Saturday,” she said. “On Sunday we didn’t get quite as many, but we had a steady stream of cars… No one could go to church, so they came to visit the nurses instead.”

MNA plans to continue its collection drive each day through Sunday, from noon to 2 p.m., at 345 Randolph Ave. The union will work with the Minnesota Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response to distribute supplies where they’re needed throughout the state.

The union is accepting paper lunch bags, Tyvek hazmat suits, safety goggles, latex-free gloves, electric respirators, PAPRs and N-95 masks of both the medical and industrial variety.

MNA’s international union, National Nurses United, recently announced a partnership with North America’s Building Trades Unions, representing over 3 million skilled tradespeople. The organizations will work together to get N-95 respirator masks and other protective equipment to nurses during the pandemic.

That’s already happening locally, Turner said, as several Building Trades unions have made deliveries to MNA headquarters.

“I never knew how many professions used masks,” Turner said. “I kind of knew the nail industry did, but jewelers, artists – wow. Our hallways and conference rooms are filling up, and it’s great to see.”

For Turner, who works on the designated COVID-19 floor at North Memorial Hospital, the scene was an encouraging sign that Minnesotans understand we’re all fighting the pandemic together, even as health care workers ready themselves for work on the front lines at a time when so much – like the availability of testing and protective gear – remains unknown. She discussed the challenges ahead in this interview, edited for length and clarity, for The Union Advocate’s April 2020 issue.

UA: What are nurses seeing in their hospitals now?

MT: You’ve got the moratorium on any kind of elective surgery now, so places like St. Paul and Minneapolis Children’s hospitals are negotiating potential layoffs. Their census is way down, so nurses in some hospitals are not working, which is ironic. You’ve got a hospital like Bethesda in St. Paul, which – remember? – not even two or three weeks ago laid off 75 nurses. And now all of a sudden they’re going to have a COVID-19 floor, and all the nurses have found other positions, so they have to put ads out for traveling nurses. Not a lot of foresight on that situation.

But things are changing day to day, and to give them their due, hospitals are constantly having to adjust things. Floors are changing from step-down to an ICU or other care level, adjusting plans daily. That being said, you’ve got surgical floors and even ICU’s where managers are locking up N-95 masks, and deciding who gets masks and who doesn’t. And you’d better have a darn good reason if you want one.

I heard someone say on the news, though, that they’re encouraging people to make cloth masks for us to wear. This is not the dark ages! A little handkerchief is not going to save us. It’s almost insulting.

(MNA Facebook photo)

UA: It’s a bit alarming, isn’t it, that nurses need to hold their own equipment drive during a pandemic?

MT: People have gotten a little crazy with having stuff that they don’t need.

UA: MNA has tried to get hospitals to meet to discuss issues like this.

MT: And they’re not. It’s so frustrating. We’ve got managers who are locking up the supplies and only handing them out if you’ve got a good reason. They’re supposed to be consolidating and rerouting the supplies to where they’re needed. But here’s the problem: they’re not doing any testing! So nurses in the ICU and on the surgical floors are saying, “We don’t know who is and isn’t COVID-19 positive.” You can understand their angst and anxiety because no one knows who has it.

UA: Locally, MNA has been a leader in efforts to expand people’s access to paid sick time. We’re seeing the importance of that work now, aren’t we?

MT: I am very proud of the fact that as an organization we have been on the front lines of earned safe and sick time and $15 an hour. I’m also very grateful that our hospital, North Memorial, has stopped all visitors. Over the years, hospitals are wanting to be more welcoming and like a five-star hotel. So I’m happy that most hospitals have shut down that extra traffic.

UA: It does seem like some people have been slow to accept what’s required of us to slow the spread of coronavirus, things like social distancing. As a nurse, what do you say to those people?

MT: I was driving up toward MNA today, going by a little park area, and I saw people walking three to five in a group – and that’s not social distancing. And it’s going to force the governor to get more and more stringent. Nurses, on the job, we can’t social distance. We are going to get within inches of our patients. So it’s hard to grapple with the idea for us.

UA: And that’s why we need to get you the highest-quality protective equipment.

MT: Not a bandana, either. I would rather walk in with nothing or with a piece of typing paper across my face, because that is just insulting.

UA: For people reading this who might have to interact with the health care system in the next few weeks, what do nurses want them to know?

MT: If you’ve got symptoms that are light, where you’re not having a hard time breathing, stay home. Weather it out in lockdown. If you have a really high fever and can’t breathe, you need to go to the hospital, and it’s best that you let them know you’re coming. That’s where we can protect our emergency-room workers.

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