Nurses fighting the spread of coronavirus unleashed a flood of criticism on the federal government and their employers Thursday, saying they have been left poorly equipped to care for their patients and protect themselves amid the outbreak.
Members of the union National Nurses United said they have faced shifting guidelines and a shortage of supplies as the tally of known infections has increased. They called on the Centers for Disease Control to quickly increase testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and demanded that federal officials implement emergency standards for hospitals and clinics around the country.
“The CDC has been behind the ball at almost every step of the way,” said Jane Thomason, an industrial hygienist for the union.
Bonnie Castillo, a registered nurse and the union’s executive director, said nurses were confident they could help contain the spread of the virus, but only if “we are given the protections and resources we need to do our jobs.”
More than 80 of the union’s nurses have been quarantined due to possible contact with infected patients, and Castillo said many facilities still lack the personal protective equipment that workers need to handle the outbreak.
“It is not a successful strategy to leave nurses and other health care workers unprotected,” Castillo said at a press conference in Oakland on Thursday. “When we are quarantined, we are not only prevented from caring for COVID-19 patients, but we are taken away from caring for cancer patients, cardiac patients and premature babies.”
The union released the results of a recent survey it conducted of 6,500 members around the country on the question of COVID-19 preparedness. Among the findings:
- Only 44 percent said their employer had given them information about the virus.
- Only 63 percent said they have access to N95 respirators. (These are recommended for health care workers handling potentially infected patients, but not the general public.)
- A little less than two-thirds say they have been trained in how to put on and take off the appropriate protective gear.
- Only 30 percent said they believe their facility has enough protective gear onhand.
- Nearly a quarter said they don’t know if their facility has a plan to isolate infected patients.
Not only is the protective equipment hard to come by, union officials said many nurses still have not been trained in how to appropriately put it on and remove it in a way to avoid contamination.
“Nurses need this hands-on training now,” said Cathy Kennedy, a registered nurse and vice president with the union. “Management has told us the training is coming. Well, it’s been several weeks and the training is slowly evolving.”
After initially laying out tight guidelines on who can be tested, the CDC has loosened them so that anyone with symptoms can undergo a test with a doctor’s approval. But the test kits are still in short supply, and local health agencies say they are being overwhelmed by the demand.
“The CDC has been behind the ball at almost every step of the way.”
At its press conference, the union shared the statement of an unnamed member who works at a Kaiser Permanente facility and was required to self-quarantine for 14 days after contact with a COVID-19 patient. The nurse has not been able to undergo a test despite exhibiting symptoms, according to the statement.
“I’m appalled at the level of bureaucracy that’s preventing nurses from getting tested,” the member said.
California and Washington state declared emergencies due to the virus on Wednesday, the same day U.S. officials confirmed the 11th COVID-19 death and at least 150 cases in 18 states. More than 3,000 have died in China, where the number of cases has begun to ebb. South Korea and Italy have also been hit hard.
The House and Senate have approved an $8 billion spending package to address the outbreak, sending the legislation to the White House Thursday for President Donald Trump’s signature. Trump has continued to downplay concerns about the virus, telling Sean Hannity in an interview Wednesday that he believes the death rate to be much lower than what health officials have said. (The fatality rate is expected to fall in the U.S. as time goes on.)
National Nurses United and other unions have been calling on the Trump administration to issue an emergency standard for infectious disease through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, so that hospitals and other employers have safety guidelines for coronavirus that they are legally required to follow. There is no such standard currently on the books.
“This is not the time to relax our approach,” Castillo said. “This is the time to step it up.”