Nurses at 15 hospitals across the country are set to stage protests both Wednesday and Thursday over what they say is a dangerous lack of protections for healthcare workers and demanding their employers provide respirators, gowns, gloves, and other protective equipment to help them safely fight the coronavirus pandemic.
"When we are infected, we become a real danger of infecting everyone else around us, patients, hospital staff, and a risk to our own families."
—Kim Smith, registered nurse
National Nurses United (NNU) helped organize the protests at hospitals run by HCA Healthcare, the country's largest and wealthiest for-profit hospital operator, in seven states. The union represents 10,000 nurses at HCA hospitals, which the union says has left its nurses even less prepared for the pandemic than healthcare providers at most other facilities in the nation.
The union posted a video on social media of nurses detailing their harrowing experiences from the past several weeks as the outbreak has spread to every state in the U.S., killing more than 3,900 people so far.
Listen to––and protect––nurses. All our lives are on the line.
— Bonnie Castillo (@NNUBonnie) April 1, 2020
"PPE, or personal protective equipment, is virtually non-existent at my hospital," one nurse in Oakland, California, said.
"I had a patient who was having respiratory issues and was not able to get a respiratory treatment because the respiratory therapist did not have the proper mask," said another who works in Auburn, California.
"Listen to—and protect—nurses. All our lives are on the line."
—Bonnie Castillo, NNU
Despite making $23 billion in profits in the last decade, NNU said in a statement, HCA Healthcare nurses in states including California, Florida, and Texas have fewer N95 respirators and other equipment to keep them from contracting the new coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, than healthcare providers at other hospitals.
Just 7% of nurses at HCA Healthcare facilities say they have enough PPE to protect staff and patients if there is a surge in coronavirus patients in their hospital, compared with 19% of nurses in general.
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Only 35% of nurses in the HCA network report having access to N95 respirators, compared with 52% of nurses nationwide.
"For the wealthiest hospital corporation in the United States to show such disregard for the health and safety of its caregivers, is disgraceful and unconscionable," said Jean Ross, president of NNU.
"Nurses at various HCA hospitals are reporting that they have had to work without proper protective equipment," Ross added. "Nurses say they are not informed when they are exposed to an infected patient. They are told to unsafely reuse masks and at one hospital they are even being told not to wear masks because it 'scared the patients.'"
One hospital in Florida delayed informing nurses that they had potentially been exposed to the coronavirus, while nurses at Corpus Christi Medical Center in Corpus Christi, Texas say they were told to report to work while waiting for the results of COVID-19 testing, potentially exposing others.
Calling nurses "canaries in the coal mine" in an op-ed published Wednesday at Common Dreams, registered nurse Amy Silverman raised similar concerns, denouncing the lack of transparency at hospitals across the country regarding the exposure of healthcare providers:
You deserve to know the truth: healthcare workers are falling ill by the thousands, some are dying, an unknown number are in critical condition, and there are no tests. Hospitals aren't testing their workers unless they have obvious symptoms, but we all know that sources of infection aren't limited to those of us who seek care in emergency rooms. Hospitals should be testing all of their workers in order to understand how to control infection within their facility—and the White House regularly broadcasts support of this strategy by relaying the message that "everyone who needs a test will get a test" yet the opposite is happening: we are spreading the virus throughout our healthcare systems, within our families and communities.
HCA Healthcare nurses stressed that allowing them to fall ill due to a lack of protective equipment will put many others in danger.
"When we are infected no one is safe," said Kim Smith, an intensive care nurse in Corpus Christi. "When we are infected, we become a real danger of infecting everyone else around us, patients, hospital staff, and a risk to our own families."