Nurses across the country are protesting dangerous working conditions, a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), and limited access to testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurses have reported being sent home for refusing to treat COVID-19 patients without sufficient PPE, being denied tests despite having COVID-19 symptoms, and being fired for publicly criticizing PPE shortages.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 9,000 American healthcare workers have tested positive for COVID-19, a likely underestimate of the actual infection rate. At least 50 nurses have died from the novel coronavirus; members of National Nurses United read their names aloud in a protest in front of the White House on Tuesday. The protesters called for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to establish protective standards for healthcare workers and urged President Trump to use the Defense Production Act to provide more PPE.
In Detroit, nurses at DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital held a sit-in in protest of being assigned unsafe patient loads. In California, nurses at Providence St. John’s Health Center rallied in support of ten nurses who were put on paid leave after refusing to treat COVID-19 patients without sufficient PPE.
In New York, nurses are taking legal action to demand better working conditions. The New York State Nurses Association is suing the state health department and two hospitals for “compromising the health and safety of the nurses” treating COVID-19 patients, partly due to inadequate supplies of PPE. In the lawsuits’ affidavits, over a dozen New York nurses described working on the frontlines of the pandemic with only surgical masks to protect themselves and claimed they were denied COVID-19 tests despite presenting symptoms.
“We were instructed that we could only wear a surgical mask, which is not adequate protection against COVID-19, if the patient presented with a cough,” wrote nurse Pamella Brown-Richardson in her affidavit. “Otherwise we were prohibited from wearing a surgical mask because management believed that doing so could alarm patients.”
When nurses do have access to the more effective N95 protective masks, they are being forced to reuse them. “Right now what’s happening, in hospitals across this country, nurses are being told to reuse their N95 masks, not only their whole shift but for days or weeks on end. That is not safe,” Amirah Sequeira of National Nurses United said. “That is not protecting them, and it is not protecting their patients.”
Nurses are also organizing counter-protests against demonstrations opposing state stay-at-home orders, concerned about potential surges in COVID-19 infections that could follow a relaxation of social distancing measures. “We don’t think we have enough equipment in all the hospitals in PA to take care of all the patients that are going to be coming in based on us getting a surge,” said Katrina Rectenwald, a nurse who counter-protested in Pennsylvania.
Sources: The Washington Post 4/21/20; NBC News 4/20/20, 4/21/20; USA Today 4/21/20