Health care workers are under a lot of pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the number of COVID-19 cases across the country continues to climb, they are disproportionately in need of support from their employers, especially in terms of safety equipment and job security. But according to a smattering of local news reports, that has not been the case: Nurses have been fired from their jobs for bringing their own PPE to work, whistleblowing about supply shortages on social media, and even volunteering to help out their overworked peers in harder-hit locations.
The incidents form a troubling pandemic trend, since health care workers are uniquely necessary and vulnerable in a pandemic. A recent report from the Center for Disease Control strengthens the case for the theory that healthcare workers are made prone to contracting COVID-19 due to repeated, prolonged exposure to infected people, with around 10,000 confirmed cases among the profession across the country. (The CDC report also states that the actual number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among healthcare workers is likely much higher. Whew!)
In late March, nurse Dawn Kulach was reportedly fired from her nursing position at Virtua Voorhees Hospital in New Jersey for bringing an N95 mask and gloves to work and refusing to discard them after she was told they violated hospital policy. According to ABC6 Action News, Kulach claims her actions ushered in a policy change to Virtua hospitals: A week later, the hospital began allowing nurses to bring in their own N95 masks, to be discarded daily and covered with a “Virtua-issued isolation mask.” “I do not believe that Virtua had any intention of changing their policy until one of the media stations aired my story," Kulach told Action News.
A representative from Virtua Health told VICE that the group doesn’t comment on personnel matters, but chief clinical officer Reginald Blaber told VICE that the PPE policy in the hospital network is inflexible for a reason. “Recognizing that people can only shift from self-interest to shared interest when they have trust, we have been in constant dialogue and openly listening to staff concerns, and have used a number of their suggestions to enhance our policies where we thought it beneficial,” Blaber’s statement said. “As flexible as we have tried to be, we do have to draw the line when individuals say that they won’t follow our safety policies—such disregard puts all of us at risk.”
On March 27, a nurse at Detroit Medical Center’s Sinai-Grace Hospital in Michigan was also let go over PPE. After she posted a video to Facebook describing the protective gear she was wearing to see the hospital’s first COVID-19 patient, Kenisa Barkai was terminated for violating the hospital’s social media policy. According to Detroit’s Local 4, Barkai spoke to the media earlier that month about the hospital’s lack of preparedness for a wave of COVID-19 patients. “I don’t feel like I violated the social media policy perse, especially at a time like this when everybody around the world is voicing their concern, their opinions,” Barkai told the news station.
Barkai has since filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the hospital. Sinai-Grace Hospital did not respond to a request for comment from VICE.
And in mid-April, a pediatric nurse from Colorado reported she was terminated from her job at Broomfield Pediatrics for taking an unpaid leave of absence in order to volunteer in New York City, the COVID-19 pandemic’s epicenter. “I was only seeing between one and three patients a day when the COVID crisis started. So, really, we weren’t being utilized,” Mehl told Fox31 of her decision to leave. But after she submitted her requested and arrived in the Empire state, she said she received an email that asked her to resign. When she refused, she was terminated.
Community Reach Center, the medical group that owns Broomfield Pediatrics, declined to comment to VICE on personnel changes.
It almost goes without saying that healthcare workers are particularly qualified to help others in a time of medical crisis, and many have already stepped up to the plate. They’re also highly visible right now, something whistleblowers like Bakari or Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who passed away from COVID-19 in February, have used to their advantage.
So, we applaud our healthcare workers on a nightly basis, exalt them as heroes, and thank them profusely on social media—but how do those gestures translate into actual, real-life backup for the people on the frontline of this pandemic? One easy way to do so is to amplify their (very real) safety concerns and support them, especially when their employers won’t.
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