As personal protective equipment shortages surface across the country, three medical assistants with Kaiser Permanente Salmon Creek in Vancouver expressed frustration with what they considered to be a lack of protective measures at the clinic Tuesday morning.
By Tuesday afternoon, Kaiser changed its policy to attempt to address the medical assistants’ concerns, but worries still linger.
The medical assistants, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told The Columbian Tuesday morning that they were not allowed to wear masks or gloves in the workplace and could not bring masks or gloves from home to do their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The medical assistants are not supposed to directly treat patients suspected of having COVID-19, but they said they were concerned about contact with patients who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.
In a phone interview just after 2 p.m., Dr. Mary Giswold, associate medical director for hospitals and post-acute care with Kaiser for the Northwest region, said staff couldn’t bring personal protective equipment from home, because Kaiser “can’t vet the safety and efficacy of personal protective equipment brought from outside the organization.”
Giswold said Kaiser’s stash of personal protective equipment was being reserved for staff most directly in contact with patients who might have COVID-19. She said masks are for settings where it’s “clinically appropriate.”
Giswold said Kaiser was following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington Department of Health and Oregon Health Authority. Two hours after the phone call, Kaiser spokesman Michael Foley emailed The Columbian, saying Kaiser changed its policy to allow staff in nonclinical areas to bring personal protective equipment from home.
“The understanding and response to the pandemic is evolving rapidly,” Foley said. “We will continue to ensure high standards of patient safety when treating patients.”
These three medical assistants don’t get suspected COVID-19 patients filtered to them, but they do have to take other patients to rooms and check their vitals. They worry those patients might spread the virus if there isn’t proper protection.
“We’re in very close contact with them in a small room for five minutes or so,” one medical assistant said. “We can’t take their vitals and stay six feet away.”
To help protect staff and patients and conserve medical supplies, Kaiser has temporarily closed three medical offices in Clark County, Giswold said. Kaiser has also postponed doctor’s visits, shifted more patients to virtual visits and postponed elective, or nonessential, procedures.
“These are unprecedented situations that we are all facing,” Giswold said. “We take the safety of our staff and patients very seriously.”
Before Kaiser reversed course, the medical assistants said they felt Kaiser was creating a dangerous work environment. The assistants said they are proud to work for Kaiser, but that they weren’t proud of its recent protocols for personal protective equipment.
“They are picking and choosing who gets the personal protective equipment,” one medical assistant said. “They are not letting us protect ourselves.”
The assistants still expressed concern over the new policy. They are worried about the safety and cleanliness of personal protection equipment brought from home, a reason Kaiser cited earlier Tuesday, and are concerned for assistants who can’t find the equipment or don’t have it at their home.
“What will they do for people who can’t bring these supplies from home?” one assistant asked.