Joel Enright is a nurse who works in a cardiac unit at United Hospital in St. Paul. Every day, he wears scrubs and a surgical mask to work to protect himself from the spread of COVID-19. When he’s done with work, those scrubs have to come home with him.
“I usually take my scrubs off at work and put them in a plastic bag,” Enright says. When he gets back to his place, they go straight into the laundry basket. A lot of his colleagues have taken to stripping in their garages before going inside and tossing their duds duds directly into the washing machine.
Enright lives on the third floor of an apartment building. He can’t exactly strip on the sidewalk.
He wishes he didn’t have to do this. He worries bringing his used scrubs home—even in a plastic bag—risks exposing him and his neighbors to coronavirus. He wishes, instead, that United did for nurses what it already does for doctors and physician’s assistants: give them hospital-issued scrubs they could leave in the building to be professionally laundered.
According to the Minnesota Nurses Association, United nurses have been so nervous about the possibility of spreading COVID-19 they’ve been ditching their standard uniforms and taking scrubs from hospital supply rooms to better protect themselves. (Nurses told WCCO they also wear a sort of yellow coverlet when they’re with patients, but it’s open in the back and only comes down to the knees.)
As a result, the association says, they were “questioned, reprimanded, and disciplined for violating hospital dress code policy.”
“What’s obscene is the lack of caring for the workers,” United nurse Brittany Livaccari said in the nurse union's official statement. “The same workers who are caring for the people of St. Paul, who come in the worst conditions. But they can’t have access to the safest, highest standards of protection to do their jobs caring for patients.”
The St. Paul City Council has since urged the hospital to “reconsider” its scrubs policy in light of the nurses’ complaints—and “forego any further disciplinary action." The union welcomed that declaration, but by Thursday afternoon, had received no word of a change in hospital policy.
Enright says staff members have asked the hospital “multiple times” why the policy can’t be changed, at least for the time being. To his knowledge, they haven't gotten an answer.
Allina Health, United’s parent company, sent City Pages a statement saying employee and patient safety was the company’s “highest priority.” But:
“Neither the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] nor [Minnesota Department of Health] recognize hospital-provided scrubs as Personal Protective Equipment. While we understand that some staff would feel more comfortable in hospital-issued scrubs, there are limited quantities.”
It went on to say that the company would “continue to look at this and other ways to support [its] staff at this time.”
In the meantime, Enright wants Minnesotans to keep doing what most of us have been doing already: take quarantine seriously, and protect yourself and others against the virus. Whatever you can do to be safe makes his job safer, too.