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Nurses lobby for better conditions after U.S. coronavirus havoc

Adriana Belmonte
Senior Editor

Even though coronavirus cases in the U.S. have declined since its peak back in March, there are still shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for nurses and other hospital personnel.

“The biggest concern is that they continue to work and continue to come to work,” Zenei Cortez, president of National Nurses United and an RN/bedside nurse in San Francisco, told Yahoo Finance. “They have not signed up to die. Because the fear of not taking care of COVID patients, the fear is not there. The fear is that we do not have the optimum PPE to take care of the patients. That’s the greatest fear they have.” 

Nurses at Montefiore Medical Center Moses Division hospital hold a protest demanding N95 masks and other critical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

There are more than 1.8 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of June 5, according to Johns Hopkins. Although the rate of new infections has slowed in recent weeks, nurses are still facing numerous challenges related to the virus.

“I think what’s being reflected now is the challenge related to the lack of testing, the increase in use of personal protective equipment, and the surge that we’re seeing across the country in infectious disease patients,” Cole Edmonson, a doctorally-prepared nurse and chief clinical officer at AMN Healthcare, told Yahoo Finance.

There are over 1.8 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

Reusing PPE

A recent National Nurses United survey of 23,500 registered nurses around the country found that 87% reported extremely high rates of reusing PPE. It also found that 28% of nurses had to reuse a “decontaminated” respirator with confirmed COVID-19 patients, and 72% of nurses had exposed skin or clothing while caring for suspected of confirmed COVID-19 patients.

And more than one quarter of respondents reported having been exposed to confirmed COVID-19 patients without the appropriate PPE and having worked within 14 days of exposure. 

“They said that the stockpile for the N95 respirator masks are dwindling down and they’re saving the fresh ones for the future,” Cortez said about hospital administrators. “But who’s going to use them if nurses are dying? We need them now.” 

Nurse Steve Homick is photographed putting on his protective gear outside of the Emergency Entrance before the start of his shift at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Although some hospitals around the country have ramped up testing for its front line workers, only 16% of nurses in the survey reported being tested for COVID-19. And of the 16%, more than 500 nurses have tested positive, while another 500 were still waiting for their results at the time of the survey. 

Another issue for these nurses is that if they test positive, at least one-third of them are required by their employers to use their own sick leave, vacation or paid time off to self-quarantine, the survey indicated. Nurses, however, argue that the illness should be presumed as work-related and therefore covered by workers’ compensation. 

‘They would much rather sacrifice the health and safety of their workers’

In order to minimize exposure, Cortez and other nurses want to be treated just as well as the doctors at their respective hospitals and receive the same kind of protections.

“We say that we need to be tested because we can be asymptomatic, but still be a carrier,” Cortez said, “which is what’s happening most of the time, because we’re there up close and personal to all the COVID-positive patients.” 

Coronavirus cases have declined in New York. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

There are calls for more N95 mask availability as well. Right now, many nurses, including Cortez, are being told to reuse their masks, but the chemicals used in the decontamination process can make it uncomfortable.

“If you breathe those masks, you get a headache or you get a sinus irritation, and our nurses have complained about that,” she said. “And so we continue to raise those issues in all of our hospitals.” 

The problem is, according to Cortez, that as hospitals are trying to cut down on costs as they lose money during the pandemic, they are doing so at the cost of worker health and safety. 

“I can say that for all of the hospitals, not just here in California, but throughout the nation,” she said. “There are PPEs available that they could buy. But the bottom line is they would much rather sacrifice the health and safety of their workers before they could be protected. And as a nurse, we’ve taken the oath that we will take care of the patients no matter who they are, no matter what they have. But in order for us to do that, we need to protect ourselves so we can be safe and that our patients could be safe as well.” 

A nurse wearing an N95 mask works as intravenous therapy (IV) equipment hangs outside a COVID-19 patient's door in a Stamford Hospital intensive care unit. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

‘We are constantly fighting’

Back in April, 10 nurses at a Santa Monica-based hospital were suspended after refusing to work without proper PPE. Eventually, the hospital changed its policies and allowed the nurses to return.  

But the issue is part of a larger overall problem in which nurses often don’t receive the same protections as physicians, even when they come into more contact with patients potentially contagious with the coronavirus. 

“Right now, the nurses don’t have presumptive eligibility, just like our firefighters and our police force where professions are male dominated,” Cortez said. “They do have presumptive eligibility, but the nursing profession does not because I think we’re a female-dominated profession. We are constantly fighting … not just for the nurses but all essential front line health care workers.” 

There are over 6.6 million coronavirus cases worldwide. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

The nurses’ union is proposing that nurses be able to use N95 masks when treating patients who are still under investigation and treat them as if they’re positive. If the patients test negative, the nurses don’t have to continue wearing those specific masks. 

And if it reaches a point where nurses have to start reusing decontaminated masks, then so be it, Cortez said — as long as it’s the last resort. 

In the meantime, National Nurses United is asking Congress and President Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to require manufacturers to make PPE so that health care workers can safely take care of patients. 

Medical workers look from the window at NYU Langone Health hospital as people applaud to show their gratitude to medical staff and essential workers. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

And, they are calling on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a temporary emergency declaration so that all front line health care workers can be properly protected against the virus. 

“While I do appreciate the flyover of the military planes, the platitudes from government officials and hospital management, I would much rather see that money spent on the essential and the much needed PPE that we need in order to take care of the public,” Cortez said. “Because that’s where the money should be spent.” 

“I’m not saying I don’t appreciate it,” she continued. “This is what we signed up for — to take care of our patients. We’re doing our jobs, but we need to do them safely and we need to take care of ourselves. And by doing that, we also take care of our patients.” 

Adriana is a reporter and editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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