RN says: Wear masks. ‘The governor here in FL, we haven’t heard a peep out of him in I don’t know how long’

A surgical mask and a KN95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Registered nurse Cynthia Butler twice tested positive for COVID-19 and still works at the same health care facility — Fawcett Memorial Hospital in southwest Florida’s Port Charlotte — caring for patients.

“I had it back in May. I got it from my job, and I was out for a few weeks, and then I went back,” Butler said in a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix.

She contracted the virus the second time from a young patient who had no symptoms.

“It was July 22, again, I was exposed at my job. … I started having flu-like symptoms, so I got tested and I was positive again,” she said. “I came back at the beginning of August. I was out for three weeks.”

When she returned, she asked her employer for an N95 mask to make her feel safe, but the hospital cited a shortage of the personal protective equipment. (Butler also is a union member of National Nurses United.)

A nurse practitioner wears a medical-grade mask and a respirator to block transmission of coronavirus between her and her patients. Infectious disease experts say widespread use of face coverings, even non-medical grade masks, reduce transmission of coronavirus. Credit: Laura Cassels

“They were like, ‘Oh no, N95’s [masks] are in short supply or they are going to be in short supply, this is a pandemic and you’re just going to wear a surgical mask,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘No way, that’s not safe for nurses.’”

That is the world that Butler and so many other health care workers across the nation live in — fighting the pandemic on the front lines and facing risks that can result in contracting the virus themselves.

Nationwide, “data suggest that at least 200,000 health care workers have been infected with coronavirus as of November 2020,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And that number is likely much higher due to gaps in data collection, the KFF report said.

The KFF defines health care workers as certified nursing assistants (CNAs), personal care aides, home health aides, licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs), physicians, and more.

With Florida closing in on 900,000 COVID-19 infections — the third highest number in the nation — the Phoenix asked health care workers to share their stories and their views to the public.

For example, RN Butler believes the status of the COVID-19 pandemic remains “unsafe” and that the state should go back to issuing restrictions such as closures. She also believes the nation needs a face mask mandate.

President-elect Joe Biden has already urged all Americans to wear masks, but Gov. Ron DeSantis has been staunchly opposed to a statewide mask mandate.

Gov. Ron DeSantis wore a face mask during an open meeting with South Florida mayors in Miami on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, but he has not ordered a statewide mask mandate. Credit: Florida Channel screenshot

“People need to be mandated to wear these masks,” Butler said. “The governor here in Florida, we haven’t heard a peep out of him in I don’t know how long,” she said.

Butler, who filed a grievance against the hospital where she works, said one of the reasons she decided to go back to Fawcett is because “it is a union hospital” and she was “represented by the union during the grievance process.”

She now has obtained an N95 mask that she wears every day.

FL doctors themselves infected with COVID-19

Dr. Andrew Pastewski, who works at Jackson South Medical Center in Miami, has been treating COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic and recalls when the state went into lockdown due to surges in cases.

But when Florida began loosening its restrictions, he allowed a family member to come and visit. That visit led to him and other family members in his house eventually becoming infected with COVID-19.

“The country was letting up and everyone was feeling good about themselves,” Pastewski said in a phone interview with the Phoenix.  (A hospital communications specialist was on the line as well.)

He told the Phoenix that the COVID-19 outbreak in their household began when his cousin came to visit. “It was the one weekend where we let up with my cousin,” he said.

“So I tested myself at my hospital. I tested positive that day and went home right then and there. I did have a slight cough and not a fever.”

Pastewski credits his hospital for its handling of the health crisis and willingness to include doctors in implementing safety protocols to protect patients and health care workers.

“The good thing about my hospital, the administration is really listening to the physicians. They listened from the very beginning to every recommendation I had. At no point did the Jackson Health System let us down in any way.”

To better protect health care workers and everyone from the coronavirus, Pastewski said, “we’ve got to stop politicizing the masks.”

“It needs to be, ‘Masks save lives.’ Let’s do what we can to keep everyone safe. … There is no question that the lockdown worked,” he continued. “We had a surge in Florida back in March and April. We don’t want lockdowns; we just want everyone safe.”

News sources have featured other health care workers in Florida who have become ill due to COVID-19, documenting their overall experience fighting the disease.

For instance, WMBB-TV in Panama City reported in late July that “a family of three local doctors all tested positive for the coronavirus, leaving one of them in the hospital fighting for their life.”

That report said Dr. Gurprit Sekhon, who owns Nu Wave Medical Center in Panama City Beach, had tested positive for COVID-19 and ended up in intensive care. Her daughter, Meghna Jahit, spoke out to beg “the community to take the virus seriously and to wear a mask,” according to the report.

Myriad concerns about transparency, safety and protection

Tracking data on infection rates and deaths among health care workers has been an issue in the industry, according to a large union representing registered nurses nationwide.

The National Nurses United said in a September report that federal and state governments as well as many hospitals are failing to disclose data on infection rates and deaths among all health care workers.

A NNU report titled “Sins of Omission” stated: “Data collection is woefully inadequate, particularly within the hospital industry, which has been given a free pass on establishment-level infection and health care worker death reporting.”

Willa Fuller, executive director of the Florida Nurses Association, said in an email to the Phoenix that “it is disturbing that this data is not being collected and shared on a more consistent basis.”

NNU has been tracking the deaths of registered nurses and health care workers nationally since the beginning of the health crisis. In Florida, NNU has documented 100 health care worker deaths due to COVID-19 as of Sept. 16, according to a press release.

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases

And nationwide, the union reported 245 registered nurses and 1,885 other health care workers who have died due to COVID-19.

Keeping health care workers and their patients safe has been a major concern in Florida, Fuller said, adding that some nurses were instructed to return to work even after receiving a COVID-19 diagnosis.

“It is important to protect health care workers and have a handle on this transmission in order to protect both their families as well as the public,” Fuller said in an email.

“I have had a couple of nurses call me who were told to come to work with their masks on even though they had tested positive. One was actually too ill to go into work. We are concerned about the variations we are hearing in nurses’ experiences and the deviation from the quality that we have been expected to deliver in our care.”

However, Dr. Joshua D. Lenchus, vice president of the Florida Medical Association, told the Phoenix in an email that hospitals and health care systems nationwide have been working to protect health care employees by providing “the necessary personal protective equipment,” despite reports of inadequate supplies of PPE.

Lenchus said safety measures have been implemented, including requiring everyone to wear face masks in facilities, and doing temperature checks at entry points. Employees are “instructed to contact employee health when feeling ill or having had a suspected contact with a COVID-19 positive patient.”

“Where there were challenges during previous waves,” Lenchus said, “we also witnessed an incredible amount of dogged persistence and creativity in keeping those on the front line as safe as possible.”