Exploring protections for medical personnel surrounding personal protective equipment

Posted at 5:56 PM, Mar 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-29 00:35:49-04

As the number of COVID-19 patients continues to rise, a nationwide shortage of protective gear like face masks and gowns is leaving hospitals all over America scrambling.

But what protections are there for medical personnel in Idaho related to that crucial equipment?

Idaho's Board of Nursing says decisions related to personal protective equipment (PPE) fall on the medical facility, a sentiment mirrored by our neighbors in Oregon, but some of those facilities' decisions on which guidelines to follow leaves some nurses in disagreement.

According to St. Lukes and St. Alphonsus, the national shortage of PPE isn't hitting Idaho as hard as some other areas, but local registered nurses like Abbi Bohlmann are concerned about the supply.

“I can’t speak for everywhere, but I know that right now it’s (PPE) being rationed, and if we see an influx of patients, we’ll be just like other places that don’t have what they need," Bohlmann said. “This is what we do, but this is above and beyond what any of us could have ever imagined.”

Medical Personnel, like nurses, wear PPE while treating patients to protect themselves from the virus, something Bohlmann says is crucial to beating COVID-19.

“If the health care workers aren’t protected, then that means there’s nobody to fight this," Bohlmann said.

According to both the Idaho and Oregon State Boards of nursing, guidelines surrounding PPE depend on which hospital you work for.

“Right now with this current situation--emergency declaration--it’s about the facilities and the hospitals following their guidelines and their rules and what they go by," said Russ Barron, Executive Director with the Idaho State Board of Nursing.

The Oregon State Board of Nursing says they've received reports of nurses refusing to treat patients because they disagree with PPE guidelines their hospital has chosen to follow--something both boards agree is not allowed.

“We had been hearing that some nurses were refusing assignments solely because their employer was utilizing OHA guidelines, that would be Oregon Health Authority guidelines, rather than WHO or CDC," said Barbara Holtry, Communications Manager for the Oregon State Board of Nursing. "They cannot refuse an assignment solely for that reason.”

“If a nurse says ‘Well I don’t like this guideline, you should go by this other one,’ the nurse can’t choose to do that. They must follow what the employer is saying," said Barron.

Both boards say they want to be clear: nurses can refuse to treat a patient if they feel they can't treat them safely.

“The Board of Nurses does not expect nurses to work without PPE, and the Nurse Practice Act supports the ability of a nurse to refuse an assignment when they do not have the knowledge, skills, competencies, and abilities to accept it safely," said Holtry. “If a nurse feels that she does not have the ability to accept a patient assignment--she or he--can refuse it.”

“They must have the ability to perform this, so they must have the protective equipment," said Barron. "That would be the same thing here.”

Barron says he's grateful for all the hard work medical professionals are putting in on the front lines as they battle the COVID-19 crisis.

“God bless all the nurses out there, let me tell you, to know the seriousness of all this and for the nurses who are always there and willing to jump in--even to put their health at stake--that’s pretty impressive," Barron said.

If you'd like to read more about Idaho Board of Nursing's response to COVID-19, click here.