Pennsylvania hospitals will be required to replace soiled or damaged respirators on request, require universal masking and take other steps to protect healthcare workers from the new coronavirus under an order issued Tuesday by the state health secretary.
With unionized nurses raising the alarm about hazardous working conditions, Health Secretary Rachel Levine pledged to “deliver a safer environment” for healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
“I have heard from nurses and staff, and this orders responds directly to many of their safety concerns,” Levine said in a written statement.
Healthcare workers have complained for months that hospitals have failed to adequately protect them during the pandemic. Nearly 6,000 healthcare workers have contracted the virus since early March, according to the Health Department.
The 8,500-member Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, one of the state’s largest nurses’ unions, said in a letter to Levine last month that working conditions inside hospitals were unsafe because of lax COVID-19 guidance issued by the Health Department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The letter also accused hospitals of rationing personal protective equipment. A major trade group representing Pennsylvania hospitals and heath systems acknowledged at the time that protective gear was being conserved because supplies were still tight.
Under the order, hospitals must provide respirators to staff involved in direct care of COVID-19 patients, and must replace them on request if the mask “has become soiled, damaged, or otherwise ineffective.” Hospitals must also notify staff members who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, the order said, and offer virus testing to those workers.
The union hailed Tuesday’s order as a major victory, saying it forces hospitals to be more accountable.
“The new rules will protect healthcare workers now, and ensure that hospitals are not caught flat-footed with unsafe practices and insufficient PPE in the event of a predicted ‘second wave’ of COVID-19,” said union president Maureen May.
An email seeking comment was sent to The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.