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National Nurses United Issues Grave Warning on Coronavirus

The labor union warns that the nation’s hospitals are woefully unprepared.

Jane Thomason, an industrial hygienist for National Nurses United, holds up a report about the SARS virus during a news conference with health care workers at the union's offices on March 5, 2020, in Oakland, California. The union held a news conference to express concerns that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not doing enough to help protect and test health care workers who are exposed to patients with the COVID-19 virus.

As novel coronavirus cases continue to grow in the United States, thousands of unionized nurses say that they find the lack of preparedness among their employers and hospitals alarming — and fear that they may be at risk for COVID-19 as a result.

On Thursday, at a press conference in Oakland, Calif., the National Nurses United (NNU) gave the result of a survey sent out to union members asking if they felt their employers were prepared for the ongoing outbreak. Pulling from recent responses from more than 6,500 nurses in 48 states, NNU said only an estimated 29 percent of nurses reported their employer had a plan in place to isolate a patient with a possible COVID-19 infection. Twenty-three percent said they “didn’t know” if there was a plan in place at their hospital.

While 63 percent of the nurses surveyed said they had access to N95 respirators at their units, many said they haven’t been fitted or trained on how to properly use them.

“The results of our national survey of more than 6,500 nurses is truly disturbing,” Jane Thomason, an industrial hygienist for the union, said on Thursday. “They show that large percentages of the nation’s hospitals are unprepared to safely handle COVID-19.”

Health care workers are one of the groups at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

Deborah Burger, RN, and one of the union’s presidents who works at a Northern California Kaiser facility, read a letter from an anonymous nurse, who works at a Northern California Kaiser facility, who is currently in quarantine. The letter read:

“As a nurse I’m very concerned that not enough is being done to stop the spread of the coronavirus. I know because I’m currently sick in quarantine after caring for a patient who tested positive. I am awaiting permission from the federal government to allow for my testing, even after my physician and county health professional ordered the test. I volunteered to be on the care team for this patient who we knew was positive. I did this because of all the recommended protective gear and training from the employer I thought was being provided. I did this assuming that if something happened to me, of course I would be cared for. Then, what was a small concern, after a few days for caring for this patient became my reality. I started getting sick.”

Ultimately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not allow her to be tested. According to the letter: “They said they would not test me because if I were wearing the recommended protective equipment, then I wouldn’t have the coronavirus.”

“What kind of science based answer is that?” the nurse wrote in her letter. “What a ridiculous and uneducated response from the department that is in charge of the health of this country.”

The CDC ultimately contacted Burger, upon which she ran into another issue with “something called the ‘identifier number.'” The CDC claims to be prioritizing running samples “by illness severity.”

“This is not a ticket dispenser at the deli counter,” the nurse’s letter stated. “It’s a public health emergency; I’m a registered nurse and I need to know if I’m positive before going back to care for patients.”

Salon contacted the CDC for comment; they responded with an emailed statement:

CDC is not aware of this individual case and can’t respond to specifics. However, CDC would most definitely recommend a health care worker who had contact with a confirmed case and then became ill be tested. At all times, clinicians have discretion to test patients based on their individual assessment of that patient’s illness and risk of exposure. Our clinical team working with state and local health departments to assess Persons Under investigation has not said no to any request for testing.

In a separate emailed statement, Kaiser Permanente said: “The safety of our patients, employees, physicians, and community is our top priority; We, along with all other health care providers and hospitals in California, have been working closely with local, state, and federal officials on the screening, testing, and care for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.”

“Our teams have been trained and are properly equipped and prepared to safely care for patients with any suspected or confirmed case, as well as any complications that arise from the virus,” the statement continued. “We are following all current CDC and State public health guidance, including protective equipment and protocols, for screening, testing, isolation, and treatment, and have been meeting with union leaders to get their input and address their concerns.”

On Wednesday, the NNU petitioned the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to adopt an emergency temporary standard to protect health care workers, and the public.

The NNU isn’t the only union to be speaking out about institutional ill-preparedness for COVID-19. In a press conference hosted by Service Employees International Union–United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), a healthcare justice union, one healthcare worker said San Francisco hospitals are understaffed and unprepared.

Moreover, in an SEIU-UHW press release, the union said that over the last couple weeks, 50 caregivers were sent home after coming into contact with infected patients. At least 10 of them were caregivers at Parkview Community Hospital Medical Center in Riverside, California, where a patient with related symptoms was not put in isolation until the next day.

“Workers were allowed to come in contact for too many hours without wearing proper safety equipment, and as a result a large number of workers had to be sent home, putting us and our families at risk,” John Richardson, a pathology assistant at Parkview Community Hospital Medical Center, said in a press statement. Richardson was sent home, but returned to work a day after it was determined that he wasn’t exposed. “If hospitals hope to get this crisis under control, they will need to immediately consult with and train their employees so the proper precautions are in place to protect workers, patients and the public,” Richardson continued.

The CDC’s decision to change its testing guidelines has been attributed to the silent spread of novel coronavirus in the state of Washington. Some officials and health experts suspect the same be happening in California. On Thursday, San Francisco city officials announced on Thursday that that two residents are presumed to have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, TechCrunch reported that Lyft sent home its office worker employees in San Francisco after learning that one staff member was in contact with someone exposed to COVID-19.

“We are basing every step of our response process on CDC guidance, and out of an abundance of caution are encouraging our San Francisco headquarters employees to work from home for the remainder of this week,” the company said in a statement to TechCrunch.

In the state of New York, the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), the largest union and association of registered nurses in the state, is demanding for more preparations, as currently there are no enforceable OSHA infectious diseases standards to protect health care workers from novel coronavirus.

“Our nurses are prepared to protect and care for patients infected with COVID-19,” Pat Kane, RN, NYSNA’s executive director, said in a statement. “But we need the appropriate level of nurse staffing and the protective equipment to get the job done. We urge government authorities and hospital management to start listening.”

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