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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — United Hospital nurses on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic were standing curbside Monday afternoon outside the ER, taking a break from battling the virus to instead amplify their battle with management over a uniform policy.

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Cliff Willmeng is one of many nurses who have been changing into hospital-issued surgical scrubs while interacting with potential COVID-19 patients.

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“If you’d told me in nursing school I’d be written up for putting on a pair of hospital scrubs, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Willmeng said.

The scrubs are then left at the hospital to be professionally laundered. But since they’re normally meant for doctors and physician assistants to wear, nurses are getting reprimanded for breaking policy.

Back when Willmeng wore his personal scrubs, he would leave them in his garage for days to decontaminate, afraid of exposing his family.

United Hospital nurse Zetella Caauwe says it’s not just about her fellow RNs.

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“It’s about the safety of our patients and our families and the community,” Caauwe said.

Allina Health, United’s parent company, released this statement:

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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. These practices are aligned with other local and national hospitals. Our policies prioritize the safety of our staff and patients, while enabling us to allocate the appropriate supplies for daily patient care and for a spike in COVID-19 cases. Allina Health follows personal protective equipment guidelines from the CDC, MDH and its infection prevention experts

Allina Health has not disciplined any employee for raising safety concerns. We need and appreciate feedback from our employees during this very complex time.

Nurses have been told by hospital management that there’s a limited supply of surgical scrubs, part of the reason it won’t change the policy.

United Hospital nurse Bob Kucera says the scrub backlash is unwarranted.

“There’s a lot of talk about PPE, and yeah, there may be a mask shortage, but there’s no scrub shortage,” Kucera said. “There’s not laundry facility shortage.”

Allina Health added that it appreciates feedback from its employees, and that it has not disciplined employees for raising safety concerns.

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WCCO asked if getting a warning for breaking the uniform policy counts as discipline. Allina said they could not comment on specific employee discipline issues.

WCCO reached out to other Twin Cities hospitals to see if they have similar uniform policies preventing nurses from wearing hospital issued scrubs. Emails were sent to Hennepin Healthcare, North Memorial Health and Regions Hospital. A spokesperson for Hennepin Healthcare responded, saying ER nurses at their hospital are allowed to wear hospital issued scrubs. The other hospitals did not respond.

The St. Paul City Council passed a resolution about two weeks ago urging United Hospital to change its policy. At the time, Allina said it had a limited supply, and was looking at ways to support staff.

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Jeff Wagner