PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A group of Butler Hospital employees on Tuesday filled more than 100 cars in a protest parade outside the facility, demanding management provide N95 masks to all its workers.
The protesting staff claim that despite at least ten confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff and patients, the hospital has refused to provide personal protective equipment, also known as PPE, to employees other than nurses and emergency-room staff. The left-out employees include those working in environmental services, dietary and clerical departments and social services, according to the protesters.
“Cleaning and sanitation work in our hospital is just as important as nursing in helping us beat the virus. This virus does not discriminate against who it infects, so management can’t discriminate against who they protect,” said Maria Dias, a housekeeper of 38 years at Butler for 38 years. “Our families, our patients, our community can’t afford for us to be an afterthought. I’ve committed my life to this hospital, it’s time that the administration values it.”
In response to the protesters, Dr. James Fanale, CEO and president of Care New England, and Mary Marran, president and chief operating officer of Butler Hospital, issued a joint statement saying the organization is deeply committed to its patients and staff, but expressed disappointment in the actions taken by the protesters.
“During this most challenging of clinical times, the staff and leadership has gone above and beyond in caring for our patients,” the executive said. “Today’s demonstration orchestrated by union leadership is deeply disappointing given the community and health care workers rallying together to beat this virus.”
The duo further noted that PPE is provided to employees with direct interaction with patients in accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and R.I. Department of Health guidelines.
“In addition to maintaining supplies of personal protective equipment, our team has implemented a series of administrative controls such as visitor restriction and limiting the numbers of health care personnel and patient contacts to those that are medically necessary,” they said. “In all cases, staff members are afforded the level of personal protective equipment appropriate to the patient interaction, in accordance with CDC recommendations and RI Department of Health guidance.”
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, thorough cleaning and disinfection procedures are essential in helping prevent the spread of coronavirus that causes the disease. The CDC also recommends full PPE for all health care professionals, including those “not directly involved in patient care, but who could be exposed to infectious agents that can be transmitted in the health care setting.”
Anthony Maselli, a dietary worker at the hospital, said he’s concerned management isn’t following that guideline, which is forcing employees like him into danger’s way.
“This is personal for me because I am HIV-positive and at higher risk for COVID-19 infection and complications,” Maselli said. “I spent half a paycheck purchasing my own stock of N95 respirators from private sellers on the internet because the hospital wouldn’t provide me with even one. There are a lot of other workers like me, with underlying conditions, who do not want to be out on leave — we want to be here, serving our patients because this work is our calling.”
Sourcing enough PPE for hospital workers has remained a challenge since the pandemic first reached Rhode Island on March 1. Direct care workers, such as nurses and doctors, have reported having to wear masks multiple days in a row. Gov. Gina Raimondo on Tuesday announced 2 million masks are now available, saying medical workers will now be able to change their masks each day.
Ashley Ouelette, a nurse at the hospital, spoke out in support of her colleagues, saying the need to provide PPE to all staff — regardless of where they work in the facility — could help the organization accomplish its overarching goal of getting ahead of the spread of the virus.
“As a congregate setting, we see the writing on the wall as the numbers of infection and death continue to grow in congregate settings like nursing homes,” Ouelette said. “Butler administration needs to provide all staff with PPE so that we can stay healthy and keep providing mental health services at a time when Rhode Islanders need us now more than ever.”