A majority of nurses in a survey say they are still reusing protective gear like masks and gowns a year into the pandemic

Nurse covid-19 icu
In the National Nurses United survey of nurses in February, 81% said they had reused single-use masks and gowns. Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • In a February survey of nurses by National Nurses United, 81% reported reusing masks and gowns.
  • The US faced mask and gown shortages due to a lack of federal coordination to stockpile equipment.
  • Nurses could face burnout from dealing with the same workplace issues throughout the pandemic.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Nurses still aren’t getting enough masks or regular testing a year into the pandemic, a survey conducted by National Nurses United suggests.

In the survey of 9,200 registered nurses in the US in February, 81% said they had reused single-use personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns. In the union’s survey of 23,000 nurses conducted last April and May, 87% reported reusing personal protective gear.

In the latest survey, 61% of hospital nurses said they had been tested for COVID-19, and nearly half said that staffing had recently gotten slightly or much worse.

In March 2020, when coronavirus cases remained below 200,000 globally, nurses told Insider that hospitals had begun rationing masks and other equipment. As COVID-19 patients crowded hospitals, the PPE shortage got so bad that nurses resorted to using trash bags as gowns.

One year later, a promising vaccine rollout could greatly reduce the threat of COVID-19. But the survey suggests that many frontline nurses are burning out from dealing with the same problems.

“We are a year into this deadly pandemic and hospitals are still failing to provide the vital resources needed to ensure safety for nurses, patients, and health care staff,” the NNU’s executive director, Bonnie Castillo, said in a release.

Why nurses are still reusing masks

A year ago, nurses painted a harrowing picture of unprepared hospitals bracing for COVID-19.

Hospital nurses, who spend more time at patients’ bedsides than other healthcare workers, said the PPE shortage would expose them and their families to the disease. NNU members protested in April outside the White House to demand more protective gear.

The PPE shortage stems in part from the Trump administration’s reluctance to coordinate and fund equipment-stockpiling efforts. Shikha Gupta, the executive director of the advocacy group Get Us PPE, recently told NPR that while the shortages were not as widespread as they were last year, supplies varied depending on the state.

As a result, nurses reused single-use N95 masks, which become contaminated with extended use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many nurses also said that hospitals were unprepared to meet the demand for equipment and that some nurses who had brought attention to the lack of resources were punished. HCA Healthcare, the country’s largest hospital system, told nurses and doctors last year that it could fire those who spoke publicly about policies surrounding equipment and patient care.

The pandemic could have long-term consequences for nurses

Nurses have had the highest death toll among healthcare roles during the pandemic, an analysis by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian found. Of 3,539 healthcare workers who have died from COVID-19 in the US, 32% were nurses.

Nurses recently told Insider that the lack of support from the government and employers, as well as the exhaustion from working during the outbreak, could lead to an exodus from the profession.

“I have talked to a lot of doctors and nurses who have told me, ‘I’m going to quit,'” Kristen Choi, a psychiatric nurse in Los Angeles, previously told Insider.

The NNU survey pointed to stressors among registered nurses: 57% of hospital nurses surveyed reported feeling more anxious than before the pandemic, and 43% said they’d had more trouble sleeping this year.

A lack of hospital nurses can lead to worse patient care. A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control in December found that assigning nurses to care for too many patients at once led to a higher rate of mortality from sepsis. Research from Australia has suggested that having fewer patients per nurse could save lives and lead to less readmission.

Though there is no reliable data on how many nurses left the profession because of the COVID-19 outbreak, a recent report from Emory University found that one-third of nurses who left their jobs in 2017 said they did so because of burnout.

Castillo said that the NNU’s latest survey “shines light on how hospital administrators are continuing to jeopardize one of society’s most valuable workforces during Covid-19, registered nurses, by prioritizing profits over basic safety and infection control measures.”