Bending PPE rules spells death for health care workers and families
Colleagues and family members gathered at UIC Hospital in Chicago for a demonstration to remember fallen health care workers and raise attention to the lack of personal protective equipment and the bending of PPE rules. At UIC Hospital, 190 healthcare workers have been confirmed infected with COVID-19. | SEIU Local 73

CHICAGO—If he could have worn a fresh N95 mask for every procedure as mandated by the Centers for Disease Control, would surgical technologist Juan Martínez be alive today?

It was a tough question for a reporter to ask a grieving daughter. “We can’t know, but they bent rules, and that’s not how healthcare should be,” Angela Martínez told People’s World.

Angela held aloft a large portrait of her father at a demonstration on the lawn across from the entrance to University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago where he had worked for over 20 years. She was joined by her sister Rebecca, brother Juan, Jr., who had followed in his father’s footsteps as a surgical tech, sister-in-law Yaneth, and her mother Martha who had worked 13 years in the hospital’s nutritional services department.

“We came because we knew they would be honoring my dad,” Angela said, describing her father as a lifelong advocate for workplace justice. “His union, SEIU Local 73, was a big part of his life. He would be proud to see us here, in support of firstline workers.”

Called together by their unions, the Illinois Nurses Association and SEIU Local 73, hospital staff and families carefully distanced themselves last Friday at noon while demanding proper equipment and hazard pay.

Angela Martínez holds a portrait of her father, Juan Martínez, a surgical tech at UIC Hospital who died of COVID-19. She is accompanied by sister Rebecca, left, and sister-in-law Yaneth, right. | Roberta Wood / PW

Angela described the skilled work her father took pride in: “The surgical tech preps the operating room with the proper instrumentation and insures the sterile technique is maintained. He was in the OR for many years, and most recently worked directly with the sterile processing team,” she said.

As a nurse practitioner herself, Angela says she knows the importance of wearing a proper N95 mask. “They have made it OK for nurses to re-use these masks. I find it so hard to believe—we’re in America. We’re in a state of emergency. That is the time the rules are made for, when we’re supposed to do everything right. That is not the time to bend the rules.”

Ebony Talley is a hospital epidemiologist who focuses on infection prevention in hospital settings. Talley echoed Angela’s concerns. “A lot of things we are asking people to do now historically we have asked people NOT to do,” she told People’s World in a phone interview.

Talley is concerned that even though the science has not changed, the rules are being re-written to accommodate equipment shortages. She recalls only a short time ago her job called for insisting that nursing managers enforce CDC rules for proper PPE usage. A health care worker observed walking around in the same mask all day long would be called to account. Now, instead of being banned, that practice is being required. “There’s no change in evidence,” she emphasizes, there’s still the danger of contaminating the environment. It’s still a fact that, in general, masks are not effective once moistened.

Anthony Wallo’s wife, Sheila Puntal, is a nurse at UIC Hospital. Although Wallo did not work at the hospital, he became ill with COVID-19 and passed away. His portrait is held by Sandra Mundt, a co-worker of his wife. | Roberta Wood / PW

Hospital workers also fear bringing the disease home to their families. One of the portraits carried was Anthony Wallo. Wallo did not work at UIC Hospital, but his wife Sheila Puntal is a nurse there, said her co-worker Sandra Mundt, who works in cardiac nursing and held Wallo’s photo. “We have to put our name on our mask so we can use them over and over,” she reported, shaking her head.

The Martínez family is a case in point of the dangers to health workers’ families: After their father’s diagnosis, Angela, Rebecca, their mother, brother, sister-in-law, and grandmother all tested positive for the virus. The grandmother remains hospitalized.

Neurological ICU nurse Eileen Fajardo was holding the photo of her good friend Joyce Pacubas Le Blanc, the first UIC nurse to die of COVID-19. “Joyce worked in a ‘clean’ unit, not a COVID unit,” Fajardo said. “It can happen to any of us. Precautions are not being taken. We should have N95 masks for everyone.” But only workers in the COVID units are supplied with N95 masks, she said.

Fajardo insisted that the protections for COVID unit staff are also inadequate. “They have 85 rooms for COVID patients, but only 3 have negative pressure. Negative pressure rooms for all COVID patients is one of the demands of the Illinois Nurses Association, according to Fajardo.

Left: Operating room nurse Maria Lopez’s portrait is held aloft by her colleague, José Right: The portrait of Joyce Pacubas Le Blanc, the first UIC nurse to die of COVID-19, is held by her friend, neurological ICU nurse Eileen Fajardo. | Roberta Wood / PW

Six feet from Fajardo stood José Moreno, holding aloft the photo of his late colleague, Maria Lopez, an operating room nurse.

Juan Martínez was scheduled to retire April 30, but on May 2, what would have been the second day of his retirement, friends, co-workers, and family paid tribute to him in a memorial drive-by procession. He will never enjoy the retirement he had worked so hard for. He died on April 27. In addition to his wife, daughters, son, and daughter-in-law, Juan Angel Martínez is survived by his beloved grandchildren, Ezra, 3, and Angelo, 1.

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Roberta Wood
Roberta Wood

Roberta Wood is a retired member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Wood was a steelworker in South Chicago, an officer of Steelworkers Local 65, and founding co-chair of the USWA District 31 Women's Caucus. She was previously Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party. Currently, she serves as a Senior Editor of People's World.