LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For Kenyatta Ervin, helping others is her calling, which is why she said she did not have a problem working with coronavirus patients at Norton Women's and Children's Hospital, where she worked as a nurse.
But she said last Tuesday, she was preparing to work and putting on her personal protective equipment, or PPE, when she noticed something missing.
"When it came time to put on my N95 mask, there weren't any available," she said.
The CDC said the N95 mask can seal and filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles and it has been an essential tool for many healthcare professionals directly dealing with coronavirus patients. But there has been a shortage of N95 masks at hospitals across the country, leading the CDC to recommend that those masks be used only in situations that pose the highest risk.
Ervin said she was told instead to wear a surgical mask, which she said was too risky for her given her health conditions.
"I have a history of asthma, severe asthma, and bouts of pneumonia, and I've been intubated twice, and I was concerned for my health," she said.
"Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have followed CDC guidelines in stressing use of the right mask for the right task," Norton Healthcare spokesperson Maggie Roetker wrote in a statement. "Per current guidelines, N95 masks and powered, air-purifying respirator are used when performing an aerosol generating procedure, such as a respiratory treatment or intubation. Surgical face masks are worn by clinical staff outside of this situation. When in the room of a COVID-19-positive patient or a person under investigation, staff wears contact, droplet and eye protection, including a surgical mask."
Ervin said she told her managers she needed the N95 mask to treat the coronavirus patients.
"They said they were sending me home. And I let them know I'm absolutely not refusing to care for my patients, COVID patients or other patients," she said. "I just need to feel protected because if I get this fatal illness, I probably won't make it."
"She got a doctor's statement outlining the conditions that would need to be met in order for her to return to work, one of which was of course having an N95 mask any time she's around the patient," Ervin's attorney Thomas Clay said.
Ervin said she is hoping to return to work soon and that her managers have told her they will be re-assigning her.
Roetker said Ervin was not suspended nor has she been subject to any disciplinary action.
"At her and her physician’s request, we are working through a process to reassign her to a position where she would not be required to treat positive or suspected COVID-19 patients," she said. "Nor would she be in a clinical area where any personal protective equipment would be necessary."
Roetker said Norton Healthcare's policy is also to help employees who raise concerns about their health issues.
"We have numerous situations in which employees have been re-assigned to other areas of the hospital, and we will continue to work with individuals as needed," Roetker wrote. "Employees have been very willing to work with us as we continue to provide care for our patients who need us."