Nurses Are Raising Red Flags About Hospitals’ Coronavirus Response

“Nurses need to be protected so we can care for all our patients when they need us.”

An ambulance worker outside a nursing facility where more than 50 people are sick and being tested for the COVID-19 virus in Kirkland, Washington.Elaine Thompson/AP

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Shortfalls in safety equipment, planning, and communication have left US hospitals unprepared to isolate coronavirus patients and protect healthcare staff during the the viral outbreak, according to a new survey of more than 6,500 nurses.

The survey, conducted by the National Nurses United, the nation’s largest professional nursing union, found that fewer than half of responding nurses had received information from their employers about how to recognize and respond to possible cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Less than a third reported that their employers had enough protective equipment on hand to protect staff in the event of a surge of infections. And just 29 percent said their employers had a plan to isolate possible coronavirus patients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently says health care workers are at high or medium risk of developing the infection if they interacted with COVID-19 patients for more than a few minutes without protective gear on their nose and mouth, depending on whether the patient was wearing a face mask. Workers who fall into either category are advised to stay home from work for 14 days.

More than 80 members of the nursing union had been in coronavirus quarantine, Bonnie Castillo, a registered nurse and National Nurses United’s executive director, announced at a press conference. “One patient can sideline so many workers at once,” she said. “When we are quarantined, we are not only prevented from caring for our COVID-19 patients, but also taken away from caring for our cancer patients, our cardiac patients, our premature babies. Nurses need to be protected so we can care for all our patients when they need us.”

Some of the problems with accessing coronavirus testing have begun to affect nurses as well. In a statement distributed by NNU on Thursday, a nurse from a Kaiser Permanente facility in northern California said she was in quarantine and sick after treating a patient who had tested positive for the virus. Both her doctor and a county health officer ordered her to be tested for the coronavirus, she said, but the CDC initially declined to test her “because if I were wearing the recommended protective equipment, then I wouldn’t have the coronavirus.” Later, she was told that testing samples would be prioritized by illness severity, and that she would have to wait in line for the results. 

“This is not the ticket dispenser at the deli counter; it’s a public health emergency!” she wrote. “I need to know if I am positive before going back to caring for patients.”

The Washington State Nurses Association has reported that some nurses at the hospital in Washington state where at least seven people have died from the virus have not received instructions on what to do after learning they had been exposed to COVID-19 patients. One nurse at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, speaking to a Washington radio station, said she was “100 percent certain” she came into contact with the virus yet had been told to report to work as long as she wasn’t experiencing fever, cough, or other symptoms. (In a statement to the station, the hospital said it was communicating its protocols to employees “regularly” and establishing systems for notifying employees who had possibly been exposed.)

“I don’t understand why Evergreen isn’t protecting their own staff,” the nurse told KUOW. As of Tuesday, she was still working.

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