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Hospital threatens to discipline nurses who spoke out about protective gear

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A University of New Mexico Hospital health care worker walks to begin her shift after taking part in a demonstration outside the facility Wednesday. Nurses and other employees have raised concerns, primarily about the hospital’s stockpile of personal protective equipment.(Anthony Jackson/Journal)

University of New Mexico Hospital administrators have threatened their front-line medical workers with disciplinary action for publicly raising concerns about their safety while treating patients during the coronavirus pandemic.

The warnings were made as the number of cases and deaths in the state attributed to COVID-19 continues to rise, and state officials have said hospitals could see a surge of patients in the coming weeks. Seven more adults – four in Bernalillo County – died amid New Mexico’s coronavirus outbreak, pushing the total to 51 deaths, state health officials said Friday.

Several UNMH nurses and other hospital employees this week raised concerns – primarily about the hospital’s stockpile of personal protective equipment, or PPE – during a protest outside the hospital and in interviews with the media. The employees said rules governing the use of the equipment have been changing regularly, raising concerns among the workers.

“We get it. There’s a nationwide shortage of (PPE). Treat us like adults. Tell us what you have. Tell us what you’re doing to preserve it and why you are cutting back,” Hunter Marshall, a nurse who works in an ICU where COVID patients are treated, said Friday. “We’ll be understanding. I have no doubt the hospital is doing the best they can. They just need to tell us what they are doing and why.”

Marshall – along with other employees, he said – received a letter Wednesday saying hospital officials observed him speaking with media on two occasions this month in violation of UNMH policy.

“Your conduct described above is unacceptable and it has interfered with the efficiency of this office,” Felicia Hoffman, director of the medical ICU, said in the letter obtained by the Journal.

“This written counseling is not disciplinary,” the letter says. “However, further instances of the above behavior after receipt of this written counseling will not be tolerated and may serve as the basis for formal disciplinary action.”

Asked about the letters, university officials referred to internal policies.

“The University of New Mexico Hospital has long-standing media and public relations policies,” said Mark Rudi, a hospital spokesman. “All employees sign that they acknowledge and understand those policies upon their date of hire.”

The warnings for disciplinary action against the workers come as state officials have warned of a forthcoming surge of COVID patients in the coming weeks, based on models predicting how the virus is spreading.

A University of New Mexico Hospital nurse with a sign referring to N95 medical masks at a demonstration outside the hospital on Wednesday, when some hospital employees raised concerns about the stockpile of PPE. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“We’ve tried to be very clear in our communication that we have no intent to disparage the hospital. We have a lot of respect for the folks who are making decisions about what constitutes sufficient PPE. They are doing the best they can with what they have,” Marshall said. “The issue is that when we speak up about the safety conditions in a way that contradicts the hospital narrative, which is we have enough to keep staff safe, we’re being threatened with discipline or intimidated.”

Additional cases

Altogether Friday, state health officials said testing had confirmed 115 new cases of COVID-19 throughout New Mexico, pushing the statewide total to 1,711.

More than half of the new cases announced Friday are in McKinley and San Juan counties, where an outbreak has hit the Navajo Nation.

State officials say COVID-19 has been a factor in 51 deaths throughout the state so far. Among the seven deaths announced Friday, the victims’ ages ranged from their 40s to their 90s. All but two had underlying medical conditions.

Two of the Bernalillo County deaths were older adults who had been residents of La Vida Llena, a retirement community in Albuquerque. Attorney General Hector Balderas has accused La Vida Llena of failing to follow public health orders, an allegation the company disputes.

Ninety-six people are hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms in New Mexico, and 382 people are classified as having recovered.

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