Thanks to the swine flu, it is common to see nurses and other hospital workers wearing special respirator masks. This has put hospitals and nurses at loggerheads--not over whether the masks should be worn but how often they should be changed out.
Even though Sacramento-area hospitals say their nurses have been wearing the special masks, a nurse there became the first health worker in the state to die from swine flu. This has given weight to the argument to frequently change the protective masks.
"If health care workers are not protected, we can potentially get infected and actually infect patients," warns Jan Rodolfo of the California Nurses Association. "So either we're protected--and everybody's protected as a result--or we're putting people at risk."
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The debate is intensifying in the Bay Area, where nurses recently filing a complaint with the state alleging hospital management is jeopardizing their health by asking them to reuse masks. Hospital officials claim a single mask for one shift is sufficient. Nurses want to swap them every time they go in and out of a sick patients' rooms.
This should resonate in Orange County, which has been the site of an unusually high number of swine-flu deaths. Twelve local residents are among the 950 people worldwide who have died from swine flu, the subject of the first World Health Organization flu pandemic since 1968. The spread has been so intense in Orange County that the Men's Central Jail in Santa Ana was just subjected to a lockdown.
A federal panel recommended last week that pregnant women and health care workers should be at the front of the line this fall for vaccinations against the H1N1 virus, the official name of swine flu. With a new flu season just around the corner, Rodolfo says health-care workers are especially worried.
"In 1918, which is the flu that everybody points to that killed more people than World War I did, there was sort of a lighter wave of flu and then a much more serious wave that happened later," Rodolfo says. "We're worried that we might be coming into that second wave."