KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Update 4/2/20:
In new interviews Thursday, Covenant Health leaders said the hospital appropriately followed CDC guidelines and was continuing to protect staff and employees.
"We are providing our staff our physicians the supplies and the resources they need per protocols from the CDC. They have those resources available to them today. But also with an eye toward conservatism of very scarce resources we will need in the future," president of the Parkwest Medical Center Neil Heatherly said.
Covenant Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Browne confirmed employees are being asked to reuse N95 respirator masks in light of new research and global supply chain shortages.
"We have successfully used our own sterilization procedures that we have used in surgery department to use them if we need them. So we are retaining those masks and beginning to use them just in the last several days to use them in case we might need them," Browne said.
"The N95 masks that we’re sterilizing would be just as safe as using an N95 mask that we would use any other time because they’re run through a sterilization procedure," he said.
A critical care nurse at Knoxville's Parkwest Medical Center said she was told to care for suspected COVID-19 patients without an N95 respirator mask. When she was allowed to use a mask, she said officials of the Covenant Health facility told her to reuse it up to five times.
Brandi Rahmanian said she did not feel the new policy was safe for herself, her coworkers or her patients. So, she decided to quit her job at the medical center.
"It was an extremely hard decision to come to because I take great pride in my job, I take great pride in my facility, but I feel extremely let down by management," she said. "I felt like my safety was in danger because my place of employment could not provide me with the proper equipment to do my job safely."
Covenant Health said it follows CDC guidelines, which allow for surgical masks when stronger N95 respirators are not available.
As a front-line soldier in the battle against the coronavirus, Rahmanian is trained to use ventilators in the hospital's intensive care unit.
"We are told that we are supposed to reuse [an N95 mask] up to five times unless it becomes visibly soiled," Rahmanian said, calling the practice something that was outside normal infection protocols just a month ago.
Other times, she said she was sent to care for suspected COVID-19 patients with only a less-effective surgical mask and a plastic face shield.
A second nurse at Parkwest confirmed the details of the new orders to 10News.
Rahmanian feared that she could accidentally spread the virus to patients, coworkers and her family.
A Covenant Health spokesperson said in a statement, "Our number one priority, now more than ever, is the health and safety of our staff members, patients and community.
"Currently, the CDC guidelines and recommendations indicate that wearing masks throughout the day is not necessary unless the provider is in contact with a suspected COVID-19 patient or during normal patient care that would require use of a mask.
"However, we understand the anxiety that the current healthcare environment has created for our dedicated staff taking care of patients and we have said that staff may choose to wear their own personally-provided surgical type masks during their shift, but that, again in accordance with the CDC guidelines, personally-provided masks should not be used in situations that require a higher level of infection prevention.
"We are extremely proud of the resolve and commitment of all of our healthcare workers working tirelessly every day taking care of patients in these unprecedented times."