'We're maxed out:' Minnesota nurses reuse masks while state officials say inventory is strong

Minnesota nurses say they're being forced to reuse masks and gowns, even after the state has spent weeks and millions of dollars stockpiling protective equipment in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday, the disconnect was laid bare. Nurses blasted state and federal officials, accusing them of providing hospitals with weak guidance on the conservation of protective gear. An hour later, state officials said inventory was strong.

At least 1,949 Minnesota health care workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to state data. Nurses have raised concerns about the issue for weeks.

"The CDC failed us. The hospital systems failed us. The federal and state government also failed us," Kara Spike, a nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital, told lawmakers at a Tuesday afternoon hearing.

Spike said she's forced to distance herself from her family at home out of fear of spreading the virus. Another nurse said she's forced to place her protective mask in a bag and reuse it day after day.

"We're maxed out, we worry about the safety of our patients, we worry about our own safety, and the safety of our families." And we need you to help us," said Ericka Helling, a nurse at M Health Fairview Southdale. 

In the past, nurses have gotten a new respirator every day. But now, hospital systems are conserving protective equipment because of disruptions in the supply chain and uncertainty over availability of certain gear.

This spring, several hospitals were down to a three-day supply of gowns and pleaded with the state to find more.

Minnesota's incident command center made a decision to buy rain ponchos after public health experts found they protect workers well, said Mary Krinkie of the Minnesota Hospital Association.

"Believe you me, I hope we go back to the days when a nurse could get a N95 (respirator) every day," Krinkie told lawmakers. "It’s not about the money. It’s being able to get our hands on this personal protective equipment."

State officials painted a jarringly different picture hours later in a news conference with reporters.

Alice Roberts-Davis, the state Department of Administration commissioner, said inventory was strong and recent usage was flat. The state recommends that hospital systems obtain protective equipment through their normal suppliers, she said.

"We’re seeing hospitals having three weeks of inventory of all items," she told reporters when pressed about the issue.

Health commissioner Jan Malcolm said she remained in close contact with nurses and hospital systems over how to conserve their equipment.

Asked if the state would revisit its decision to allow elective surgeries to resume, Malcolm said "nothing is off the table in terms of what can and should be revisited." But no changes appeared imminent.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed concern after the testimony from nurses.

"There’s not a storeroom of PPE at the hospitals that the management is hiding from you, I’m certain," said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. "Are they just rationing it too much? Or how do we get more of it?"