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Kansas City's Children’s Mercy Bars Medical Staff From Continuously Wearing Masks During COVID-19

A masked health care worker looks out from a banner at Children's Mercy Hospital, which is building a $200 million research tower on Kansas City's Hospital Hill.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
A masked health care worker looks out from a banner at Children's Mercy Hospital, which is building a $200 million research tower on Kansas City's Hospital Hill.

Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City has barred medical staff from wearing face masks continuously through shifts during the COVID-19 pandemic and has threatened disciplinary action if staff defy the order.

In an internal email sent March 19 and obtained by KCUR, hospital leaders cited guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say face masks should solely be used by people who show symptoms of the coronavirus.

“You are not allowed to wear a mask continuously throughout your shift in order to protect yourself,” the email read, quoting CDC guidelines that say people who are well shouldn’t wear a face mask.

Two patients have tested positive for COVID-19 at Children’s Mercy.

While hospital officials defend the practice as using the best science, some workers feel demoralized and think Children’s Mercy is failing to protect them, one health care worker told KCUR, speaking anonymously out of fear of retaliation.

The order was handed down as a dictate without regard for the fears all health care workers have about transmission of the respiratory virus, the worker said.

The hospital’s directive also includes a ban on workers bringing in their own protective masks. On Wednesday, the hospital issued a statement saying it isn’t accepting homemade masks offered by crafters in the community.

The hospital is being cautious about the use of personal protective equipment, or PPE, because it may need more gear as the pandemic progresses, said Dr. Angela Myers, division director for infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy.

“We need to be very judicious about what we're using and when we're using it in a patient that actually needs us to use the PPE so that when we have high (risk) situations down the road, which I anticipate that we will, we don't only have low-risk PPE available,” she said.

“I think it's really important that we continue to look at this as a marathon and not a sprint.”

In comparison, most other hospitals in the metro area are allowing staff to wear masks full-time. In Massachusetts, the largest hospital chain made news this week when it imposed a “universal mask” policy, so all staffers are required to wear surgical masks.  

Asked if the disciplinary measures include firings, Myers said, “that has not been talked about now.”

Staff workers have already been offered use of paid time off, such as vacation days, if they fear being in the hospital during the pandemic, Myers said. If a health care worker wants to continue working but defies the order barring masks, they would be talked to about their fears, she said.

“We would, of course, try to avoid any sort of disciplinary action,” Myers said. “But if we allow indiscriminate use of PPE, our concern is that we will run out of an adequate supply.”

Myers also defended the hospital’s refusal to allow employees to use their own masks or to take homemade masks.

“If people are using unofficial or not medical grade products, it gives a false sense of security,” she said. “When in reality it's not protecting them and it may be doing harm because they're touching their face more because of it.”

Of the two patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 at Children’s Mercy, one was a child seen in the emergency department and the other at one of the urgent care centers, Myers said. Both had mild illnesses and each is now convalescing at home, she said.

Myers also denied that the staff is demoralized, saying they’ve been supported with daily emails and leaders and doctors making rounds to check on whether workers feel calm.

“Actually, morale is quite good and people have been incredibly supportive,” Myers said. “There are some people who have high anxiety and high fear as there are everywhere and we are trying to reach out to those folks.”

Peggy Lowe is an investigative reporter at KCUR and the Marketplace hub reporter. She's on Twitter at @peggyllowe.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.