Privatized U.S. hospitals are driving a "system failure" in the face of the Ebola epidemic, warn nurses, who say that healthcare facilities and workers across the country are ill-prepared because of poor training and oversight— putting those on the front lines at great risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed Sunday that a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital tested positive for the virus after treating Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, who died of the disease last Wednesday.
Speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden blamed what he called a "breach in protocol" on the part of the healthcare worker for the spread of the infection.
However, nurses across the country have warned for weeks that hospitals are not doing enough to prepare for the epidemic.
"We're seeing that caregivers who are not being adequately trained are being blamed," said registered nurse Katy Roemer during a Sunday press conference hosted by the country's largest nursing union, National Nurses United (NNU). Roemer said that the organization has been asking hospitals to provide hands-on training during which nurses can ask questions about the precaution measures, to no avail. "We cannot blame the healthcare providers who are on the front lines, risking their lives to help patients and then face possible infection themselves," Roemer continued.
"You don't scapegoat and blame when you have a disease outbreak," agreed Bonnie Castillo, director of the Registered Nurses Response Network at NNU. "We have a system failure. That is what we have to correct."
Castillo and Roemer are among the voices expressing growing concern over the poor federal oversight of hospital preparedness, including proper staff training, in light of the Ebola crisis. "Because we have a privatized health care system it's all over the board," Castillo explained to CBS News. "There's no uniformity or enforcement mechanism."
"You don't scapegoat and blame when you have a disease outbreak. We have a system failure."
—Bonnie Castillo, director of the Registered Nurses Response Network at NNU
By the CDC's own admission, they are unable to properly monitor hospitals and have no authority to make sure they comply with official guidelines.
"There are 5,000 hospitals in the U.S. and I would say probably the number of them that have actually done drills or put plans in place is small," said CDC spokesperson Abbigail Tumpey. "It’s up to each hospital to enforce infection control, and standards vary depending on funding for infection experts and time devoted to training."
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As Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted last Thursday, much of the Ebola research funding has also been slashed in recent years by austerity-driven measures.
During his Sunday appearance, Friedan warned that "it is possible in the coming days that we will see additional cases of Ebola" in the United States.
Several weeks before Ebola had been diagnosed in the United States, NNU, which represents 185,000 nurses nationwide, initiated a survey of registered nurses across the country about emergency preparedness. The overwhelming response was that healthcare workers at U.S. hospitals have been left dangerously unprepared.
Of the 1,900 RNs from over 750 facilities who completed to the survey as of Sunday, NNU notes:
- 76 percent still say their hospital has not communicated to them any policy regarding potential admission of patients infected by Ebola
- 85 percent say their hospital has not provided education on Ebola with the ability for the nurses to interact and ask questions
- 37 percent say their hospital has insufficient current supplies of eye protection (face shields or side shields with goggles) for daily use on their unit; 36 percent say there are insufficient supplies of fluid resistant/impermeable gowns in their hospital
- 39 percent say their hospital does not have plans to equip isolation rooms with plastic covered mattresses and pillows and discard all linens after use; only 8 percent said they were aware their hospital does have such a plan in place
NNU is calling for all U.S. hospitals to immediately implement a full emergency preparedness plan for Ebola, or other disease outbreaks, including: full training of hospital personnel, adequate supplies of Hazmat suits and other personal protective equipment, properly equipped isolation rooms, and proper procedures for disposal of medical waste and linens.
"We will sound the alarm," Castillo warned during the Sunday press conference, saying that the nurses will "be in front of the hospitals letting the public know if they are ready and not ready."
On Wednesday, NNU is planning to hold a national conference call for nurses across the U.S. to discuss concerns about U.S. hospital readiness for Ebola.
The group is also calling for a significant increase in provisions of aid, personnel and equipment to the nations in West Africa to help contain and stop the spread of Ebola. On Monday, World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan called the epidemic "the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times." According to WHO's latest figures issued last week, there have been more than 4,000 people killed and over 8,300 infected by the virus, the vast majority in West African countries Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.