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Miami Nurses Using Controversial Masks Worry About Safety

KN95 masks were recently cleared by FDA and CDC but need to be properly tested before use.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

HCA hospitals in South Florida are struggling to supply workers with personal protective equipment and have turned to a controversial solution: KN95 masks.

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The masks are made and tested in China and until recently were not approved by the CDC or FDA. Because of the increased demand and lack of supply, both organizations have cleared the KN95s for use in hospitals. 

Caridad Alvarez is a nurse at Kendall Regional Hospital where they’ve started using the controversial masks. The hospital is managed by HCA Healthcare, which manages nine hospitals in South Florida.

Alvarez doesn’t feel safe using the new masks, but feels she doesn't have a choice.

“I have to take care of the patient no matter what, with whatever mask they provide to me, but we have a right to say that we can get sick, we're going to make the patient sick because it's not safe,” she said.

If properly manufactured, the two masks work almost the same, but Alvarez says she can feel the difference.

“The kind of mask that they give to us right now, we feel like we are breathing through and it’s not the appropriate one,” she said.

According to the FDA, the burden of testing falls on the importer, HCA has not responded to questions about where their masks came from or if they were tested.

In other parts of the country, millions of dollars have been spent on KN95 masks only to find out they did not function properly. 

Alvarez is a member of the 1199 SEIU labor union. They sent a cease-and-desist letter to HCA Healthcare demanding a reversal of the “significant and medically questionable change” in procedures.

According to a press release from 1199 SEIU, the reduced use of N-95 masks was announced despite a separate company newsletter dated April 16 reporting HCA had a 29-day supply of protective respirators currently in inventory and called itself the “safest place to practice and receive care in South Florida.”

HCA has not responded to the letter but in a statement said it’s following CDC protocols for conserving protective equipment — and is prioritizing N95s for workers doing more critical procedures.

Alvarez says she just wants her voice and the voices of her co-workers to be heard. She says a lot of her coworkers are starting to develop symptoms and having to stay home to quarantine.

“Right now we feel like we are alone,” she said.

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Gerard Albert III is a senior journalism major at Florida International University, who flip-flopped around creative interests until being pulled away by the rush of reporting.