Terminated ER nurse speaks out about safety concerns, his firing, upcoming rally

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For the first time in weeks, medical and dental clinics are allowed to resume elective surgeries Monday in Minnesota.

That’s after Gov. Tim Walz issued a new executive order further lifting COVID-19 restrictions on certain industries statewide.

The mandate had been put in place to give hospital and medical facilities more time to obtain supplies and personal protective equipment for the expected surge in patients with the severe respiratory illness coming to hospitals for care.

The Minnesota Nurses Association had been publicly opposed to the restart of elective surgeries because it contends there’s still a lack of adequate safety supplies for folks on the frontline treating patients. That’s a sentiment shared by Cliff Willmeng, who had been an emergency room nurse at United Hospital in St. Paul until his termination last Friday.

"It’s a bit of a gut punch to be honest," Willmeng said.

Willmeng stood outside of his Minneapolis home Sunday and said what happened to him is bigger than the mask he wore on his face or scrubs he wore at work.

"I would say that’s grossly superficial," he said. "Understanding we are in the middle of a pandemic, we are panicked to find supplies that should’ve been stockpiled a long time ago."

Willmeng said he also happens to be a union steward in charge of looking out for other nurses and staff who come into daily, direct contact with COVID-19 patients.

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"These staff walk into the hospital, in my opinion, egregiously disorganized and risking their lives for patient care."

For instance, Willmeng said nurses are instructed to store their N95 safety masks in a brown paper bag to decontaminate because he maintains they don’t get a new one each day. A nurse posted a photo reportedly taken in the break room of dozens of brown paper bags posted on the wall containing masks.

Willmeng admitted he had been written up along with other nurses for another reason: violating hospital policy dress code. Willmeng said that was for wearing hospital-issued scrubs set aside for doctors in the ER. Nurses were supposed to wear their own personal scrubs to help preserve supplies.

United Hospital, where he worked, is part of the Allina Health System, which shared a statement Sunday in response to Willmeng’s termination:

"It is never easy to part ways with an employee … But we cannot appropriately retain employees who willfully and repeatedly choose to violate hospital policies designed to protect our patients and staff."

Willmeng contended it was only after learning coronavirus could survive for two days on the material and he was concerned he could bring COVID-19 with him out of the hospital, into the public and home to his family.

"I’m telling you, it’s retaliation against somebody who is a union steward standing up for workplace rights and patient and workplace safety," Willmeng said. " … This is not a small affront to me and my family, and I believe it’s there to send fear into the rest of the workforce."

Allina said in a statement it "adheres to the latest guidance from the CDC and MDH in relation to Personal Protective Equipment" and that hospital-issued scrubs are not considered personal protective equipment.

"At a time when all health care systems are managing limited supplies, Allina Health has carefully weighed and adopted policies for the use and distribution of those supplies, such as scrubs for staff," the statement continued.

Willmeng emphasized he wants to go back to work in the emergency room. And on the broader issue of safety, the Minnesota Nurses Association plans to hold a march on May 20 from United Hospital to the Minnesota State Capitol to deliver a petition that demands better safety equipment in larger quantities.