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Following Federal Fines, Hartford HealthCare Says It Will Provide More Masks To Employees

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC

Hartford HealthCare announced it has updated guidance on how masks are distributed to health care workers. The announcement comes after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the network for two alleged “serious” violations at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield. 

In September, OSHA cited Natchaug management for failing to give N95 respirators to front-line workers. The agency said employees were asked to care for patients suspected of having COVID-19 without “appropriate” respiratory protection in the form of an N95 mask. 

On Thursday, the network announced it would update its guidance on mask distribution. 

In a message to employees, Hartford HealthCare said new masks will be available daily to clinicians and colleagues who spend most of their day doing direct patient care. 

Keith Grant, the network’s senior director of infection prevention, said that includes surgical masks and N95 masks.  

“Any colleague that needs to change their mask at any point in time, they can,” Grant said. “The guideline that we’re providing is to, at least, do it after every shift.”

Grant said the updated guidance was not brought about due to the OSHA citations at Natchaug. 

“No. Absolutely not,” Grant said. “We have 37,000 employees, our footprint is pretty significant in the state of Connecticut. So, safety, I would say, extends throughout the entire community. That’s really the number one piece and element in our decision-making process.”

In the citation, OSHA said Natchaug employees who provided direct care to a suspected COVID-19 patient in April “were not provided adequate respiratory protection and were potentially exposed to SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

“Appropriate respiratory protection is an N95 filtering facepiece,” the citation said. “The employees were required to be within six feet of the patient to perform tasks such as obtaining vital signs and providing personal care. The patient was not wearing a mask.”

Investigators called attention to a similar incident in the hospital’s adolescent unit in mid-May. OSHA also cited the hospital for a failure to document what it characterized as eight “work-related” cases of COVID-19.

Grant said there are situations when caregivers should use an N95 respirator.

“If you’re caring for a patient that is positive, then absolutely,” Grant said. “If you’re caring for a patient that is a PUI [patient under investigation], then absolutely. Those patients, you definitely should be using an N95.”

Hartford HealthCare last week reiterated it continues to disagree with OSHA’s findings, announcing Tuesday it is formally challenging the citation and fines totaling more than $13,000. 

Grant said global market stress constrained supply chains and relatively low transmission rates in Connecticut lessened the urgency for federal policymakers to distribute PPE to the state.

He said that left the network to track down vendors, sort out faulty equipment and build supply before announcing the face mask guidance change.

“Over the last few months, we’ve gotten products that we’ve had a lot of, that we can’t use,” Grant said. “After vetting we realized … until we’ve gotten to a space where we have products that we’re very confident in, and our staff as well, are confident in, we were not going to move to this.” 

Before announcing the updated face mask guidelines, Grant said Hartford HealthCare sourced “hundreds of thousands” of N95 masks.

He said a bigger supply of PPE means the network can now better outfit health care workers to respond to local outbreaks of COVID-19, such as recent spikes in eastern Connecticut. 

“So the posture for PPE at Natchaug, Backus and probably Windham, and other areas around there, might be different from what you see at Hartford Hospital right now,” Grant said. “Primarily, because there’s a change in community prevalence.”

“This policy change is welcome news to front-line nurses and health professionals,” said Sherri Dayton, a registered nurse and president of the Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Local 5149, in an emailed statement. “It’s a genuine sign that the network’s executives are listening to the members of our unions, who’ve been sounding the alarm bell for months.”

As Connecticut Public reported, representatives of AFT filed the initial OSHA complaint over working conditions at Natchaug in May.

Meanwhile, Grant said the network is working with an outside vendor to provide health care workers who need N95 masks across the Hartford HealthCare system with respirators that are correctly “fitted” to each user to ensure the mask issnug to the face and has no leaks or gaps. 

Grant estimated that process would be completed in the next two to three weeks.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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