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DIGGING DEEPER: New PPE guidelines causing fear and anxiety among some healthcare workers

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INDIANAPOLIS (WPTA21) - A shortage of protective gear has stretched supplies to a point at which some hospitals are literally rewriting the rules regarding how they should be used.

A nurse who is experiencing it first hand says it's a problem that has her concerned about her own safety.

"I would say an average day is chaotic and it's full of fear," she told ABC21. "What am I going to see today? Who is going to die on me today?"

It's a new day for healthcare workers throughout the Hoosier State. The result of a fight against a pandemic that is changing our everyday lives.

For the first time, ABC21's Digging Deeper team is hearing directly from a nurse in Indiana's hardest hit area: Marion County. The nurse, who we are calling "CJ", agreed to talk to us, but asked for us to protect her identity.

She works at Ascension St. Vincent in Indianapolis.

"It feels otherworldly. It feels like you walk onto the COVID unit and you're watching a movie about a pandemic. It's something you never thought you'd see in real life," CJ said.

Throughout our nearly hour-long conversation, CJ told us of a new problem created in the wake of COVID-19: A lack of Personal Protective Equipment or PPE.

CJ said she is concerned about new hospital polices allowing the reuse of PPE, specifically masks.

"So, from the time you're in nursing school, to the time you start you're first nursing job, you are taught that our PPE is a one time use thing. You would under no circumstance think that those items should be taken out of that room and taken into the next room of a patient that may or may not have the same infection.”

However, hospitals like Ascension St. Vincent were allowed to revise their polices after the CDC relaxed safety measures to help conserve PPE supplies.

Now, according to a policy obtained by ABC21's Digging Deeper team, nurses at Ascension St. Vincent use one mask for the day and store it in a paper bag. Only certain conditions allow a nurse to get a new mask.

At the end of the day, the masks are collected for decontamination to be used again later.

It's a policy hospitals around the country have adopted, not just Ascension St. Vincent.

"The virus has gotten more deadly and the fact that the protection against it has gotten more relaxed because it's hard to keep PPE in the building," CJ said. "If you're going to give everyone a mask and there's only one mask per person... It's just dangerous."

CJ isn't alone in her concern.

We reached out to Jean Ross, the co-president of National Nurses United, a union representing nurses in several states around the country, about these relaxed policies.

"So, we do not recommend using something that is contaminated and we certainly do not recommend leaving it in a brown paper bag for it to sit there and fest in whatever is on top of it." said Ross.

Ross also doesn't think there is enough evidence that masks can be safely decontaminated and used again later.

"We've had them look into this, our industrial hygienist has looked at it from every angle and there doesn't seem to really be any way of decontaminating those masks that leaves the mask or the wearer unharmed," she explained.

We asked CJ if she faults the hospital or if she thinks it's a larger problem.

"I can't throw the hospital under the bus. It's not the hospital's fault. At least, they are reassuring us they are doing everything they can to get more masks and to get as many masks as possible."

We reached out to Ascension St. Vincent for an interview to discuss their policies. They declined to speak with us, but sent this statement:

"We are following the updated CDC guidelines regarding suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases and the use of personal protective equipment. The safety of our caregivers and patients is our utmost priority as we all work to slow the transmission of COVID-19 and care for all those in need. We are taking proactive steps with our distributor and suppliers to ensure access to supplies. We are arranging expedited shipments directly from manufacturers, assessing alternative products and taking advantage of our abilities as a national system to make intra-hospital inventory transfers when appropriate. We have also implemented conservation measures, in anticipation of further supply chain disruption over the coming months due to COVID-19."

-Ascension St. Vincent

But, masks are still in short supply, leaving nurses like CJ to work with what's available under relaxed standards.

"A country wants to call us heroes, but it doesn't want to give us the tools we need to do our job. And as much as I can appreciate a free Starbucks coffee, it doesn't take away the risk of giving my family an illness, getting sick myself... It's just sad. It's just sad."

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Ian Hoover

Ian Hoover is the Managing Editor of Fort Wayne’s NBC and ABC21. His focus is managerial oversight of content including working with reporters on elements for their stories and with producers for deeper content in newscasts; long-range planning and content development; editorial meeting oversight; and special projects management.

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