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Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, New York Nurses Union Warns of ‘Extreme Understaffing’

John Tarleton Mar 11

As the coronavirus continues to spread in New York and around the world, we hear a lot about the danger it poses to the public, how prominent politicians are or are not responding to it and what its potential impact might be on the economy, but little of the workers responding to COVID-19. 

On the March 9 edition of the WBAI Evening News, The Indypendent’s editor-in-chief, John Tarleton, was joined by Lisa Baum, lead Occupational Health & Safety Representative for the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA). The union represents 42,000 frontline nurses, including more than 10,000 nurses at the New York-Presbyterian, Mount Sinai and Montefiore hospital systems here in New York City. 

This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity. 

The number of coronavirus cases is steadily growing. So far, Westchester County has been the epicenter of the outbreak in New York. But we are also seeing more cases in the city. Can you describe the challenges nurses face? 

Once the situation changed from cases that were acquired abroad to cases that were acquired here, it became a much more complicated situation. The key to controlling exposure in a healthcare setting is quick identification. We now have a lot of people who meet the criteria for identification, particularly because it is flu season. This situation is not suddenly upon us. We’ve known for months that this was a likely scenario. We are concerned that many hospitals have not used that time adequately to prepare to protect healthcare workers. 

When you have a crisis like this you are looking at extreme understaffing.

You can protect healthcare workers through some very specific means. The public is now aware of many of them — personal protective equipment, appropriate respiratory protection, isolation rooms and early identification. We know that there are extreme shortages of some of this equipment and that in a number of hospitals, both in New York and across the country, significant numbers of healthcare workers have been exposed to COVID-19 and have become ill.

In some cases, people have come to hospitals concerned that they might have the coronavirus to get checked or tested and in the time between when they’re tested and when the results are known they’ve been able to infect other people, including nurses. 

That’s true. Common sense tells us that you must treat the patient under investigation the same way you would treat a patient who has a confirmed case. You can’t go back in time and say, “Oops, you should have had better protection.’ 

In 2014, we faced ebolavirus, which originated in West Africa. There were concerns it would spread widely. The Obama administration was much more aggressive about deploying Occupational Safety and Health officials, inspecting hospitals and making sure they were following correct procedures. How are things different this time? Are hospitals being left to self-regulate?

Yes. The Centers for Disease Control is a guidance agency. It is not an enforcement agency. The enforcement agencies that would affect conditions in a hospital for both patients and healthcare workers are the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the New York State Department of Health. During the Ebola crisis, both OSHA and the NYSDA issued directives that were enforceable by law. That has not happened so far. 

If nurses are also contracting the coronavirus and have to go home and self-quarantine, will hospitals be short-handed? We covered NYSNA’s contract battle last year, where you all were fighting very hard to get hospitals to increase staffing. Where does that stand? 

Hospitals on a daily basis are not adequately staffed, so when you have a crisis like this you are looking at extreme understaffing. That’s both because there is more need for care and you have more people coming to the hospital and because you have workers being put under quarantine due to inadequate protection from exposure, as well as workers who may have traveled before there were travel bans and are now under quarantine. This really exacerbates the problem.

You also need additional staffing to make sure patients in the emergency departments are quickly identified and put into isolation if they appear to have symptoms.

What is your advice to people who think they may need to go to the hospital whether it’s because they think they have coronavirus or because they have other ailments? If they’re in danger of becoming infected at hospitals that are not following correct procedures, what should they do? 

Patients should contact their doctor and ask for advice. There are many people who need to be in a hospital, who need to go to an emergency department. Their doctor is the best person to decide the best course of action for them.

There are some basic prevention methods for the general public — washing hands, washing down phones and keyboards. We like to use the analogy of when you’re on a plane and they’re doing the safety announcements and they discuss if an emergency mask comes down and you are traveling with someone who needs assistance. You put the mask on yourself first because if you don’t you won’t be able to assist anyone else.

That’s how we have to look at healthcare workers. If you want to keep the public safe, you need to keep healthcare workers safe.

The Indypendent hosts the WBAI Evening News on Mondays from 6 to 6:30 p.m. 99.5 and wbai.org.

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