NEPTUNE CITY — Federal workplace safety regulators are investigating complaints that Jersey Shore Medical Center gave trash bags for staff to wear and weren't providing properly fitting respirator masks to prevent infection.

A letter from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the hospital's parent company, Hackensack Meridian Health, outlines the nursing union's concerns: the hospital suspended staff fittings of N95 masks; lack of training on how to properly conduct a seal test of the masks; and the use of KN95 masks, which are not approved by the FDA and CDC.

The complaint also includes concern over a shortage of gowns and a lack of training on how to disinfect personal protective equipment.

"It is an enormous issue if you consider how deadly this virus can be. The average healthcare worker is tremendously concerned about getting exposed, about contracting the disease, and the onus is on the employer to provide that protection," said Debbie White, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, a union that represents 13,000 hospital workers in the state, including about 1,300 at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

White said hospital workers caring for COVID-19 patients are supposed to be fit-tested for the N95 masks to make sure they are sealed properly.

"The fit testing is to find the proper mask for each employee. If you don't wear the proper fit, you're not protected," she said. "The virus can get in and around the mask. That is why a surgical mask is not protection against the COVID virus."

White said that some people cannot be properly fitted and protected. In those cases, accommodations must be made for those workers, including not being assigned to care for COVID-19 patients.

White said OSHA rolled back their requirement for annual fit testing but still requires an initial fit test for anyone newly assigned to work with COVID-19 patients.

"What we found that Hackensack Meridian had done was they had eliminated all fit testing and they were just passing out random masks to people saying, 'Here, you look like you would fit in this size. Wear it,'" White said.

Staff with improperly fitted masks are at risk because air can seep around the seal.

"The air can get anywhere and those particles can be anywhere in the air and coming around your mask if it's too big," White said.

She said that daily seal tests to double-check the fit are the responsibility of the employee but they were not being trained properly.

"It is not intuitive. It is something that has to be trained," White said.

"A properly sealed N95 respirator (mask) is so important because our heroic workers are treating patients during a global pandemic that has killed over 80,000 Americans and sickened a million Americans in a very short period of time," she said.

Kenneth N. Sable, regional president for Hackensack Meridian Health's Southern Market, said the hospital is aware of the investigation.

"The safety and well-being of our team members and patients has always been and will continue to be our primary concern," he said in a written statement. "The current global health care crisis does not negate their importance."

Sable said the healthcare company has been doing the following:

• We secure supplies and equipment from across the country and the world.

• We were the first network in New Jersey to implement universal masking to further protect all team members. And we were the first network in New Jersey to implement universal masking of our patients to further protect our team members.

• We provide ongoing education to our team members and continually update guidelines and policies as needed.

• Team member education is conducted on how to doff and don PPE.

• Some team members have asked if they can supply their own PPE. We have provided them with the appropriate criteria for personal use.

• Any N95 respirator used in our network must meet NIOSH criteria and must be successfully fit-tested. If a team member dons a respirator that doesn’t fit properly, then the team member will be assigned to a role that doesn’t require PPE.

• Team member and patient safety has always been and will remain our number one priority.

White said union members also complained about not receiving gowns and were forced to wear trash bags. OSHA responded immediately to that complaint and told the hospital they expected the situation to be "remedied."

White said OSHA can take up to six months to complete their investigation.

Monmouth County has had 7,742 residents with confirmed COVID-19 with 480 deaths as of Thursday, according to the state Department of Health.

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