Many U.S. healthcare workers face COVID-19 safety challenges

A scinetist is doing research on a vaccine against COVID-19 in Shanghai. Photo:Yang Hui/Global Times

by Julia Pierrepont III, Huang Heng

One expects a certain degree of danger in jobs like a police officer, soldier or firefighter, but nurses and doctors aren’t typically called upon to risk for their lives on a daily basis.

Novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has changed all that.

Nurses at 139 hospitals in 13 U.S. states representing more than 95,540 nurses were scheduled to hold workplace actions on Friday, the International Workers’ Day, calling for optimal COVID-19 protections, the National Nurses United (NNU) announced.

NNU said in a press release that their demand for optimal Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is underscored by the fact that more than 60 nurses across the country have died of the fatal disease.

Due to lack of testing, however, the number is surely higher. And there is no exact data how many healthcare workers in the country have been infected by the disease so far.

According to a report posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on April 14, more than 9,000 healthcare workers in the United States had tested positive for the novel coronavirus before April 9. This number was believed to be an undercount of infections due to a lack of tests in many areas.

“Health Care Personnel (HCP) accounted for 11 percent (1,689 of 15,194) of reported cases. The total number of COVID-19 cases among HCP is expected to rise as more U.S. communities experience widespread transmission,” the report said.

In a daily briefing this Monday, Los Angeles officials revealed that close to 2,000 healthcare workers in the county had tested positive on COVID-19, a 26 percent increase since last week, and 11 had died.

Not surprisingly, nurses comprised the majority of those frontline workers who fell victim to COVID-19, with their employers evenly split between nursing homes and hospitals.

“To the families we very much mourn with you,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “Your loved ones dedicated themselves to helping others and in doing so they saved many lives. To all those on the frontlines, we owe you our deepest gratitude.”

However, hymns can not resolve the big trouble.

Lacking consistent and adequate protocols from the White House and the CDC, through painful trial and error, U.S. hospitals have learned not just how to care for COVID-19 patients but also what protective protocols are necessary to protect the healthcare workers who treat and care for others.

Yet, many hospitals are still not following these necessary protocols, several healthcare workers told Xinhua in confidence.

“We still aren’t safe,” Nurse A working in a Los Angeles area health facility told Xinhua on Wednesday, withholding her name for fear of reprisals from her hospital administration. She revealed a continuing lack of proper PPE in their hospital.

In the United States, COVID-19 protocols practiced by individual hospitals are a mismatched patchwork of differing rules and regulations, with each hospital making up their own.

“Healthcare workers are being hung out to dry,” Nurse B from Mount Sinai Systems Morningside told Xinhua.

“Healthcare in the U.S. is really screwed up. Many hospitals like mine are so focused on their profit margins that they keep their wards chronically understaffed, and that’s a bigger problem now because COVID treatments are even more labor intensive.”

He said that hospitals had not spent enough money to get the PPE needed to properly protect their healthcare workers. “It’s wrong and it’s dangerous.”

The nurse also said he felt it was unconscionable that government officials and hospitals sat on their hands and watched while the virus swept through China and didn’t take advantage of that crucial 10-week early warning period to get prepared for when the outbreak inevitably hit the United States.

Nurse C, a female nurse from the Kaiser Permanente system in the Los Angeles area, reported similar problems and shortages. Kaiser is one of the largest U.S. healthcare systems and posts 80 billion U.S. dollars in annual revenues.

Concerned over the lack of credible and concrete information on COVID-19 as to whether it was spread only by droplets or was genuinely airborne, Nurse C and some of other concerned nurses purchased their own masks to wear at work, and some even tried to lighten the mood by wearing attractive, yet effective, designer masks.

They were dismayed when all their masks were immediately confiscated by the management, who told them they didn’t want them spooking the patients by wearing masks around them. The management also told the nurses that they didn’t have to worry about getting COVID-19 if they didn’t work on the designated floor.

“But patients with COVID-19 came right through our lobby to get to the COVID floor,” Nurse C told Xinhua. “That kind of incompetence and misinformation could kill people.”

Worse still, at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, a group of nurses requested proper N95 masks from the management to protect them from the coronavirus and refused to go on the COVID floor without them.

“Management didn’t even listen to their concerns,” Nurse D told Xinhua. “They just suspended them all in the middle of the crisis.”

This led to an impromptu protest outside the hospital two weeks ago by concerned nurses who had not expected the management to deliberately put them in harm’s way. Upset and fearing for their lives, the protestors demanded better PPE and that their suspended colleagues be allowed back to work.

“It was definitely a punitive action by the administration to suspend those nurses, who were only requesting the minimum standard protections against this deadly disease,” Nurse D told Xinhua.

Nurse D also revealed that the outbreak is taking a deep emotional toll on nurses and doctors who haven’t been able to go home to their families in weeks out of fear they might bring the disease home with them.

Unlike most people who are sheltering-in-place with their families, nurses have been forced by circumstances to stay in hotels in strict isolation from their loved ones.

On Tuesday, a group of nurses and community members protested in a caravan outside of the Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica again, asking hospital officials to provide hotel rooms so healthcare workers can prevent spreading the coronavirus to their families as they continue to fight the pandemic.

With estimates of the number of healthcare workers infected by the coronavirus continuing to climb, nurses are taking action to protect themselves if their management won’t.

As a result, nurse-led protests are popping up all over the country, including one on the White House doorstep, where worried nurses gathered last week to demand greater protection for healthcare workers on the frontlines and more consistency from the CDC and the administration regarding what are genuinely safe COVID-19 protocols for healthcare workers.

They strongly criticized the CDC for saying nurses could be given bandanas to wear instead of proper N95 masks.

“We are here because our colleagues are dying. I think that right now people think of us as heroes, but we’re feeling like martyrs,” a nurse told NBC News.

They called upon President Donald Trump to immediately and fully invoke the Defense Production Act to urgently increase the production of respirators, face shields, coveralls, gowns and surgical masks – something that Trump has so far refused to do.

Instead, Trump told the states to figure out their own medical supply sources and not expect the federal government’s help – an announcement which sent shock waves throughout the country.

Nurses signed up to care for their patients. They did not sign up to sacrifice their lives on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo on Thursday’s statement. “On this day that celebrates the labor movement and working people, union nurses are standing up to demand the protections they need now!”

“Ensuring that nurses and other healthcare workers receive the proper PPE and training must be our top priority,” Brian Benson, a retired nurse in New York City told Xinhua. “They are the cornerstone of any healthcare system and if they come down sick with the coronavirus themselves, who will be left to take care of all the other patients?” Enditem

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