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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Nurses at a Twin Cities hospital said they’re getting reprimanded for trying to protect themselves.

They work at United Hospital in St. Paul. Nurses in the emergency room and other departments there have been wearing surgical scrubs, which are normally meant for doctors and physician’s assistants. By doing so, nurses said they’re running the risk of being fired.

Health care workers in the COVID-19 era, like Zetella Caauwe and Leif Thorsgaard, are in a difficult spot.

Caauwe is a registered nurse and an assistant clinical manager.

“It’s been scary. I’m terrified for myself and my staff,” Caauwe said.

Thorsgaard is also a registered nurse.

“It kind of feels like you’re standing at the edge of a cliff,” Thorsgaard said.

READ MORE: 23-Year-Old St. Paul Nurse Recovers After COVID-19 Diagnosis

Protecting themselves is an even greater priority now. At United Hospital, nurses are given yellow gowns to cover their uniforms when interacting with patients, but they remain open in the back and stop at their knees or higher.

“And if people are coughing or sneezing or spit or anything like of that nature, all the droplets kind of make their way down,” Thorsgaard said.

The concern of bringing home a contaminated uniform is why some nurses are now changing into surgical scrubs that the hospital provides to doctors and physician assistants.

The scrubs can be left at the hospital, where they’re taken to an off-site laundry company for cleaning. But nurses like Thorsgaard and Caauwe say they’re now getting reprimanded for breaking uniform policy, with the threat of possible termination if they keep doing so.

“It’s a safety issue, first and foremost. I don’t want to make my community sick. I don’t want to make my family sick,” Thorsgaard said.

Allina Health is United’s parent company. It released this statement to WCCO:

Ensuring the safety of every one of our employees is Allina Health’s top priority. We understand the concern many of our health care workers face as they work to provide the best care for patients, coupled with keeping themselves and their families safe from infection. Our policies and practices in relation to Personal Protective Equipment, including scrubs and other hospital garments, are aligned with the latest guidance available from infection prevention experts. We also value feedback from our employees and continue to evaluate additional ways we can support them during this time.

READ MORE: Nurse Emily Allen Talks Caring For Patients In Protective Gear, ‘It’s Like Being In A Space Suit’

Thorsgaard wonders why the uniform policy can’t change, emphasizing how he’s reusing his N95 mask when months earlier that would’ve been against policy.

“I have a [N95] mask that I’m still reusing from the 30th of March. I put it in a paper bag and I let it decontaminate for five days and I recycle it back in with another,” he said. “It’s not like the [uniform] policy can’t change. And I’m open to suggestions if they want to provide me some sort of other layer to protect my legs.”

The fear of getting fired has stopped some nurses from wearing the surgical scrubs, said Caauwee. But she plans to keep changing into them when she works. For her, the risk of losing her job isn’t as high as potentially carrying the virus on her personal uniform and bringing it home.

“I will continue to wear the hospital-issue scrubs because I do think it’s such a safety issue,” Caauwe said. “We wish they would sit down and talk to us and help us work through this with them.”

She has filed complaints with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over the issue.

Allina went on to say it values feedback from its employees, and will continue to evaluate additional ways to support them during this time.

Unrelated to the uniform issue, Thorsgaard wanted to thank everyone who has shown support for health care workers. He appreciates when people drop off food at the hospital for workers.

“The thing that I would, we all would love a million times more, is when this has passed to remember to continue to support us because we’re here to help you,” he said.

Jeff Wagner