Hospital Workers In Unsafe Conditions Fear They'll Get Too Sick To Care For Patients

The people treating COVID-19 patients are at risk of joining them because they aren't adequately protected.

America’s hospital workers are afraid. Each day, nurses, doctors and other hospital employees are working their shifts amid the novel coronavirus pandemic in conditions so unsafe, there’s a growing fear they will become too sick to work and will spread the virus to co-workers and patients alike before they are diagnosed.

A shortage of health care workers during the expected surge of COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks would severely weaken the already lackluster and inadequate U.S. response to the outbreak. If more nurses, physicians, technicians, housekeepers, security guards and other employees are infected, hospitals won’t be able to function at full capacity and patients won’t be able to get the care they need at the time when it’s needed most.

The situation varies from hospital to hospital, but the overarching message from health care workers is loud and clear: They feel they are putting their lives and the lives of their colleagues and patients in danger. Almost 7 in 10 health care workers are concerned that they or their family members will become ill from the coronavirus, according to survey findings released last week by the Henry. J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

The chief complaint from nurses and other health care workers around the country, for now, is the lack of personal protective equipment, also known as PPE. There is a nationwide shortage of some supplies, including the N95 masks that are best suited to protecting workers from the coronavirus, and personnel in some hospitals are resorting to using garbage bags or New York Yankees rain ponchos as gowns.

But the problems go deeper. Health care workers told HuffPost of constantly shifting directives from hospital administrators about safety procedures, dangerously relaxed hygienic standards and a pecking order within hospital staff that leaves some workers with little to no access to equipment to protect themselves from infection.

‘No, These Are For Special People’

“Right now, we are really still in the dark about how to handle the situation,” said Andrea Brooks, who has cleaned patient rooms at a Baltimore hospital for eight years. “It would’ve been handled a lot better if they prepared us beforehand. I don’t think everybody would be as scared as they are. It’s just like, now, boom, here, go. We don’t know what it is but, you know, handle it the best way you can.”

Last month, Brooks was told to clean and disinfect a room occupied by a patient suspected of having COVID-19. She noticed that a nurse was distributing N95 masks and other personal protective equipment to workers, and asked for one before entering the room.

“She was like, ‘No, these are for special people,’” Brooks said.

HuffPost agreed not to name Brooks’ employer to reduce the likelihood of retaliation against her for talking to the press. It’s a real concern: Even amid a national health crisis, medical professionals have been threatened or fired in a few known cases for speaking out about safety concerns, including an emergency department physician in Washington state.

After complaining to the hospital’s human resources department and to her union, the Service Employees International Union or SEIU, Brooks didn’t have to clean that room.

But the experience shook her. And Brooks also said hospital administrators are giving workers mixed messages about how to do their jobs during this crisis. First, she was told that the coronavirus could survive on surfaces for up to 72 hours, then she was told surfaces are safe after 45 minutes.

Brooks must reuse rubber gloves, something she said was never the practice before. She’s been instructed to clean COVID-19 patients’ rooms first and their adjoining bathrooms second, which is the opposite of normal protocol and makes no sense to Brooks.

“Everybody’s on 20 different pages. I feel like it’s so unorganized,” Brooks said.

The stress and worry about getting sick are getting to Brooks, and she considered leaving the hospital. “I was definitely at my breaking point,” she said. “But I went home and I looked at my kids and I was like, no, I cannot just up and quit.”

An emergency services nurse at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle helps a colleague put on a medical face shield prior to their shift in a triage tent used for arriving patients who have respiratory symptoms.
An emergency services nurse at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle helps a colleague put on a medical face shield prior to their shift in a triage tent used for arriving patients who have respiratory symptoms.

‘It Became Very Apparent They Didn’t Care’

Darlene, a nurse in southern Maryland, made a different decision last month and walked away from her hospital job. HuffPost agreed to withhold Darlene’s surname and former employer so as not to harm her future job prospects.

At the hospital where she worked, Darlene and other nurses were given a single N95 mask to reuse every shift unless they become soiled, she said.

“We’re basically told to guard it with our lives because, in two weeks, we may not have any,” she said.

Normally, workers have access to the stores of N95 masks so they can replace them as needed, and to the boxes in which they’re kept, which are marked with the masks’ expiration date. Now, they must request replacement equipment.

But those requests are sometimes rejected. In Darlene’s case, she noticed that her mask wasn’t fitting right from overuse.

“I called the nursing supervisor, told him what was going on. And he was like, ‘I don’t think it’s an issue with the mask’ and he wouldn’t give me a new mask. So I put in my resignation that morning,” she said.

Later that day, Darlene saw a hospital administrator quoted in the press saying the facility had plenty of personal protective equipment.

“They either are lying to the public and they don’t actually have the stock they say they have, or they don’t care about us that are actually working with these patients on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

“We’re really seeing the true colors of the places that we work for,” Darlene said. “It became very apparent they didn’t care and if something happened to me or my family, they still wouldn’t care. And I couldn’t stay.” Darlene counts herself fortunate that her husband earns enough money that the family can get by without her income.

‘Really Unsafe Working Conditions’

These are not isolated cases, said Andrea Acevedo, president of SEIU Healthcare Michigan.

“Our workers in hospitals specifically are being put in exposure positions where they are not properly allowing PPE to be worn,” Acevedo said. “I would assume that the reasoning is because of a fear of a shortage. But what we have seen and had confirmed is that there have been frontline nurses that have tested positive for COVID-19 due to lack of proper PPE being given to them,” she said.

“Everyone is hoarding things and waiting for this surge. They want to protect high-level folks, when actually it’s just like a strand of pearls: If one breaks off, they all fall down,” Acevedo said. “You are going to see hospital systems run out of employees, the way they’re operating.”

SEIU members around the country are reporting “some really unsafe working conditions,” Acevedo said.

Workers are shifted between hospitals’ special COVID-19 areas to other parts of the hospital. Employees working with or near COVID-19 patients are still using the employee cafeteria alongside other hospital personnel. Workers, especially those who don’t provide direct medical care — like custodial employees, clerks, security guards and technicians —are given the bare minimum of protective equipment or none at all.

“We’re really seeing the true colors of the places that we work for. It became very apparent they didn’t care and if something happened to me or my family, they still wouldn’t care.”

- Darlene, nurse in Maryland

‘That Should Be Worrisome To All of Us’

Sandra Beltran has been an emergency department nurse for 15 years and has never seen anything like what’s going on inside her hospital right now. “Coming to work, I felt like a heaviness in my heart, just scared and wondering what we’re going to be faced with today,” said Beltran, who works at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

At her hospital, Beltran and other nurses are using their N95 masks for five days at a time, a major departure from the previous standard, which called for disposing of the mask after each encounter with patients who have infectious diseases that spread from droplets or through the air. Workers store their N95 masks in brown paper bags, Beltran said.

“They continue to tell us that we are short of PPE,” Beltran said.

One day in the emergency department last month, Beltran could find only two canisters of the special sanitary wipes workers use to clean off medical equipment like stethoscopes and diagnostic machines. A co-worker complained to a hospital administrator who happened to be in the emergency department about the lack of supplies, not realizing that the administrator was the CEO.

The executive asked for a locked storeroom in the unit to be opened. They found a supply closet stocked with N95 masks, gowns and wipes, Beltran said.

“That should be worrisome to all of us, because instead of approaching stopping the virus by protecting all the personnel, it sounds like oftentimes, the personnel who receive protection are those that either have a union voice or are loud enough at advocating for themselves,” Beltran said. “But then those that are told no and don’t push it further are left without protection, and then they run the risk of becoming super-spreaders within a health care setting.”

‘The Effects Will Be Catastrophic’

Accounts like these are why Lauren Jones Sparks, a nurse completing her doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, has been trying to organize physicians and nurses to protest unsafe conditions and threaten to walk off the job if they persist.

Jones Sparks has been collecting testimonials from medical personnel around the United States about their working conditions and their fears of getting ill and spreading the coronavirus to colleagues, patients and family members. Health care workers also fear their employers will retaliate against them if they speak publicly about their concerns.

“This is the time of greatest moral distress for health care providers and practitioners in our country,” Jones Sparks said. “Not only do we feel bound by contracts so much, we can’t speak out, but it is very challenging for us to give what we feel is an appropriate level of care.”

“The reason nurses and physicians are talking about walking off the job is not because [we] want to abandon their patients and protect ourselves, it’s because we have to preserve our frontline people,” she said. “If we don’t do that, the effects will be catastrophic.”

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