HARRISBURG (AP) — Pennsylvania hospitals will be required to replace soiled or damaged respirators on request, require universal masking and take other steps to protect health care workers from the new coronavirus under an order issued Tuesday by the state health secretary.
With unionized nurses raising the alarm about hazardous working conditions, Health Secretary Rachel Levine pledged to “deliver a safer environment” for health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
“I have heard from nurses and staff, and this orders responds directly to many of their safety concerns,” Levine said in a written statement.
Health care workers have complained for months that hospitals have failed to adequately protect them during the pandemic. Nearly 6,000 health care workers have contracted the virus since early March, according to the Health Department.
The 8,500-member Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, one of the state’s largest nurses’ unions, said in a letter to Levine last month that working conditions inside hospitals were unsafe because of lax COVID-19 guidance issued by the Health Department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The letter also accused hospitals of rationing personal protective equipment. A major trade group representing Pennsylvania hospitals and heath systems acknowledged at the time that protective gear was being conserved because supplies were still tight.
Under the order, hospitals must provide respirators to staff involved in direct care of COVID-19 patients, and must replace them on request if the mask “has become soiled, damaged, or otherwise ineffective.” Hospitals must also notify staff members who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, the order said, and offer virus testing to those workers.
The union hailed Tuesday’s order as a major victory, saying it forces hospitals to be more accountable.
“The new rules will protect health care workers now, and ensure that hospitals are not caught flat-footed with unsafe practices and insufficient PPE in the event of a predicted ‘second wave’ of COVID-19,” said union president Maureen May.
An email seeking comment was sent to The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.
In other coronavirus-related developments Tuesday:
REPUBLICANS SEEK TO END SHUTDOWNS
A Republican proposal that aims to force Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to end the pandemic disaster declaration occupied the Legislature for hours on Tuesday, but its legal impact was disputed.
Senate Republicans said the state law that gave Wolf the ability to issue the March 6 declaration also gives lawmakers the power to end it with a resolution. Republicans control both legislative chambers.
But Wolf’s office argued the state constitution explicitly gives him the power to approve or veto any concurrent resolution, except one to adjourn their session. He has vowed to veto it if it gets to his desk.
Republican supporters say Wolf’s actions under the disaster declaration have been an overreach and that the severe economic effects of the shutdown make it time to end the widespread business closures Wolf has imposed.
“Livelihoods are being crushed,” said Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, during a lengthy floor debate. “Businesses are shuttering, never to be opened again. And time is of the essence for many more.”
Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger says the business shutdowns, including building safety orders, were ordered by the health secretary under a different law.
Kensinger said that canceling the disaster declaration would affect a number of steps the governor has taken, including unemployment compensation eligibility rules.
Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 death toll passed 6,000 as the state Health Department on Tuesday reported 61 additional deaths linked to the disease.
Of the state’s 6,014 deaths, over two-thirds have occurred in nursing homes and other facilities that care for older adults.
State health officials also said Tuesday that 351 more people have tested positive for the new coronavirus. Since early March, infections have been confirmed in more than 76,400 people in Pennsylvania.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than the confirmed case count because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.
Nearly a half-million people in Pennsylvania have tested negative for the virus.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Five more coronavirus testing sites are opening in underserved areas of Pennsylvania.
Beginning Wednesday, drive-thru testing sites will be open in Walmart parking lots in Mill Hall, Punxsutawney, Bradford, Cranberry and Warren. They’ll join five other testing sites that opened Friday at Walmart stores in Clarion, Erie, Montoursville, Clearfield and Hermitage.
The tests are free. Registration is required a day in advance. Patients can create an account at www.MyQuestCOVIDTestPA.com.