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I-TEAM: Valleywise staff told they can't wear N95 masks, staff resorts to hiding them under surgical masks

An anonymous staff member told 12 News she and her colleagues are being sent into a war zone with no protection.

PHOENIX — An employee at a Valleywise behavioral health center is sounding the alarm amid a coronavirus outbreak at the facility she works at. She says she and her colleagues are being sent into a war zone with no protection.

“Behavioral health, in general, gets overlooked all the time," said a Valleywise employee who asked to remain anonymous, scared speaking out could cost her her job.

Overlooked is exactly how this whistleblower feels. 

“I get so anxious going to work every day," she said.

Credit: 12 News

She said she feels anxious because she is walking into a facility with a COVID-19 outbreak. 

As of Aug. 3, Valleywise's Phoenix behavioral health center had 12 patients that have tested positive. One is currently positive in the main hospital while eleven have recovered but are still in the health facility.

At Valleywise's Maryvale behavioral health center, sixteen total patients have tested positive with four currently positive and twelve recovered.

Valleywise's Roosevelt campus has 62 total cases with 50 currently positive, seven who have recovered but are still hospitalized and five who have been discharged. It is unclear how many are behavioral health patients.

“I don’t know how they’re protecting staff throughout the entire hospital but I can speak for behavioral health. They are not stepping up," the whistleblower said.

12 News visited the Maryvale facility back in January. The behavioral health centers are not built for social distancing but for those experiencing a mental health crisis. They have been ordered by a court to get an evaluation and help.

“They’re coming because they’ve done something to where they’re unfit for society," the whistleblower said. “My job entails me to be right next to the patients and sometimes two hours at a time. Sometimes longer.”

The employee said in the past month, the outbreak has spread out of control to both patients and staff.

Valleywise declined to tell 12 News how many staff members have tested positive.

The employee believes the outbreak is in part due to the fact that she and her colleagues are not allowed to wear N95 masks while working - only surgical masks.

“I was upset. All of my coworkers were upset. We would wear them and then we would get in trouble. We have to sneak them under surgical masks in order to protect ourselves.”

Staff received a memo saying, "N95 masks are not approved to be worn in behavioral health settings."

Credit: 12 News

“Why are you sending staff into the war zone basically without protection?”

12 News took that question to Dr. Michael White, Valleywise's executive vice president and chief medical officer.

“It really comes down to the availability to have this with the volume of staff and volume of team members that we have," White said.

Credit: 12 News

White said it is a shortage problem. Hospital data shows Valleywise has enough N95 masks for the next 112 days but that is just for medical staff working with the sickest patients like those on ventilators.

White said if that supply was extended to the behavioral health staff and others, the supply would go from 112 days to likely less than a week.

White said a surgical mask still offers employees protection.

“That surgical mask has been shown to decrease the risk of transmission from this virus," White said.

White said patients are also required to wear masks but staff members tell 12 News that is not always the case.

“it can be difficult in that environment to have people be able to comply be able to do that," White said.

As White works to navigate these uncharted waters, employees believe a good place to start would be to work with the state to get more PPE,

“They need to step up and they need to protect our staff and our patients," the anonymous employee said.

When 12 News contacted Arizona's Department of Health Services inquiring about additional PPE and the state's total supply of N95 masks, a spokesperson said they encourage healthcare facilities to work with their respective counties to submit PPE resource requests.