Nurses Beg for Better Protection Against the Coronavirus

Nurses Beg for Better Protection Against the Coronavirus

In the wake of the coronavirus anxiety, healthcare workers say they do not have access to enough protective gear and protocols to protect themselves.

Those who treat coronavirus patients in the hospital are among the most important individuals in the fight against this virus. However, many healthcare workers say their health is not being made a priority—especially in areas of the U.S. that are getting hit hardest by the virus.

According to one New York Times article, many nurses have had to beg for N95 masks, which are thicker than surgical masks and block out much smaller particles. Some have even been pulled out of quarantine early to treat patients because of staff shortages.

However, many of those who have raised concerns have received ridicule from colleagues when expressing concerns about catching the contagious virus.

“If nurses aren’t safe, then really our community isn’t safe,” said Jenny Managhebi, a clinical nurse at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center—the same place where 24 nurses were asked to self-quarantine after a patient tested positive for the virus. “If I’m not safe at the bedside, when I come home to my husband and my children, then they’re not safe.”

High-risk states like Washington State and California are not the only places where nurses are experiencing shortages. National Nurses United, a union that represents over 150,000 nationwide, announced its results of an online survey it recently conducted.

Of the 6,500 nurses who participated, 29 percent said their hospitals had a plan in place to isolate potential coronavirus patients, and 44 percent said their employers provided guidance about how to handle the virus.

Sixty-three percent had access to N95 face masks, and a quarter of the respondents had access to an even more protective mask recommended by the union—the PAPR, or a powered air purifying respirator.

Still, healthcare workers who are in quarantine are not being tested quickly enough, say some. The article shares the sentiments of one California nurse who is in a 14-day self-quarantine. After caring for a coronavirus patient, she complained that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not testing her for the virus quickly enough.

“This is not the ticket dispenser at a deli counter; it’s a public health emergency!” she wrote in a statement shared by National Nurses United.

At a recent news conference, the union demanded that the federal government ensure all health care workers receive the highest levels of protective equipment, that any vaccine that is developed by offered to the public for free, and that Congress immediately pass an emergency spending package in response to the virus. President Trump just signed an $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus spending package last week.

Still, many think the Centers for Disease Control and the federal government are not doing enough.

“The C.D.C. has been behind the ball at almost every step of the way,” said Jane Thomason, a union official who focuses on workplace health and safety.

The article explains that healthcare workers are among the most at risk of contracting the virus, as sick people report to emergency rooms and are treated before their condition is known. At least eight people who work for U.S. health care facilities have been diagnosed with the virus, including three employees in a hospital in Vacaville, California, as well as five people who worked at the Life Care long-term care facility in Kirkland, Washington.

Sick healthcare workers do not only put their own health at risk. This is a question for everyone’s safety, as health care workers who are exposed to the virus can unwittingly transmit it. Still, hospitals around the country are experiencing staff shortages, and many self-quarantined workers are being asked to leave quarantine and return to work.

At EvergreenHealth, a hospital in Kirkland where at least 11 deaths have occurred, nurses who were told to self-quarantine were later asked to return to work, according to Washington State Nurses Association. This raised fears that they could further spread the virus if they had contracted it.

One survey from the association (which represents over 16,000 registered nurses in the state) reported that 40 percent of the Evergreen nurses who responded said they lacked access to adequate protective equipment. Over half said they did not feel prepared to provide care for a patient with a known or suspected case of the virus.

Many hospital officials argue they are doing everything possible at the moment. Chief nursing officer at EvergreenHealth, Mary Shepler, said the hospital has adequate supplies, including single-use masks and face shields that are sterilized and reused. The hospital has also conducted drills and training for such situations, she said, adding that she understands the stress people are under while dealing with the virus.

She did admit, however, that quarantining workers creates a problem for hospitals, as it creates work shortages. “They brought nurses back who were asymptomatic—an approach deemed reasonable by the C.D.C., she said—and are testing them twice a shift. They are also required to wear masks while treating patients,” said the article.

At a news conference scheduled for later this week, the California Nurses Association—a statewide union that has grown into the largest organization of nurses in the country with over 155,000 nurses—the association will demand access to “the highest level of protection” for nurses on the front lines. It also plans to demand training and clear plans for how to handle patients suspected of having the virus. The CDC says it’s only a matter of time.  

“Employers shall plan for a surge of patients with possible or confirmed Covid-19, including plans to isolate, cohort, and to provide safe staffing,” the union said in a statement. “Any nurse/health care worker who is exposed to Covid-19 will be placed on precautionary leave for at least 14 days and will maintain pay and other benefits during the full length of that leave.”

To further complicate matters: many nurses say they have not been properly trained for putting on and taking off protective gear. The NYT article explains that training nurses “how to use protective gear is almost as important as the gear itself, because taking it off incorrectly can result in spreading dangerous fluids from a sick patient.”

“It used to be that you’d get a full day training,” said Gerard Brogan, the director of nursing practice at the California Nurses Association. “Now, they will send a nurse and doctor to the internet to learn how to don and doff a hazmat suit.”

One nurse from Orange County describes the fear many nurses have for speaking up and raising concerns. Some healthcare workers are taking it very seriously whereas others are not: “Some doctors have been walking through the hospital for weeks with respirator masks. Others have been brushing it off like, ‘If you think this is a big deal, you are a conspiracy theorist and you are weak.’”

In the wake of this wave of anxiety and panic surrounding the virus, health care workers are at a very high risk of getting, spreading and even dying from the virus. While some people do not consider it a threat, many others are saying that it’s not being taken seriously enough.

For information on the coronavirus and how to stay health yourself, see the CDC’s webpage.

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