ST. PAUL — Minnesota nurses said they are rationing personal protective equipment and using unapproved supplies to guard against the coronavirus as the state works to stockpile millions of respirator masks, face shields and surgical gloves to treat patients with COVID-19.

A handful of nurses from around the state on Tuesday, May 19, told a panel of state lawmakers that they don't have access to the personal protective equipment they need at work and were directed to reuse supplies for several days.

Under typical circumstances, the reuse of masks and other supplies would violate hospital policy, but amid a national shortage of personal protective equipment due to the pandemic, hospital leaders have had to ask nurses and other health care workers to reuse masks to conserve dwindling supplies.

The changes have fueled confusion and anxiety among health care workers who fear faulty protective equipment won't guard them against COVID-19. The Department of Health reports that 1,949 health care workers have become sickened with COVID-19, though it's not clear that they were infected on the job.

“I dread the day that I have to stand in front of the media to report out the first death of a Minnesota nurse because they weren’t properly protected at the bedside," Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said. “There isn’t right now enough PPE for everyone and we need to do something about that."

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As part of its COVID-19 response, the state in March banned all elective surgeries to preserve personal protective equipment. Since then, health and emergency operations officials have stockpiled the supplies within the state and went out to buy up additional masks, gloves and gowns ahead of an expected peak in cases.

Elective surgeries were allowed to resume in recent weeks as state health officials felt they'd stockpiled enough equipment to manage a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Mary Krinkie, Minnesota Hospital Association vice president of government relations, said if hospitals reported critical shortages of personal protective equipment, they would ask Gov. Tim Walz to reinstate an order banning elective surgeries. The procedures also require personal protective equipment and can pull it from those treating COVID-19 patients.

For now, Krinkie said, hospital administrators were balancing how to best allocate short supplies of personal protective equipment.

“We know that we need to have an adequate supply of PPE not only for our patients with surgical procedures but then also to protect our frontline care workers," Krinkie said. "So there is this balance between what do our patients need in surgery and other procedures versus what is the PPE our staff is going to need to care for COVID patients?"

State health officials on Tuesday said they'll continue talks with hospitals and other health care facilities to make sure they have needed supplies. A state dashboard on Tuesday showed the state had sizeable inventories of gowns, masks, gloves and face shields with additional shipments incoming.