'This Is Truly a War:' Nurses Are Staging a National Day of Protest

'There’s been an entire loss of protocols around infection control because of the shortage of supplies. Instead we’re making them up as we go along.'
April 15, 2020, 12:00pm
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Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

Nurses at hospitals from coast to coast will protest the lack of protective equipment and mounting toll of preventable healthcare worker deaths on Wednesday—in the first coordinated national action led by healthcare workers since the pandemic began.

Hundreds of participating nurses in New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania, will demand increased supplies of N95 masks, ventilators, and hospital gowns, a new system for sharing limited resources for the cities most in need, proper training for nurses expected to provide critical care, adequate nursing staff, and temporary housing in union hotels for healthcare workers who risk spreading the illness to family.

“This is truly a war. None of us have ever dealt with anything like this,” Maureen May, a nurse at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, and the president of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, a labor union that represents 8,300 healthcare workers in Pennsylvania, told Motherboard. May said that 12 of her local unions will stage their own actions.

“A lot of our frustration comes from the fact that there aren’t enough nurses to take care of Covid-19 patients, and the ever-changing rules for safe practice, safe protective equipment, and CDC guidelines. I have nurses telling me, ‘I can’t be the nurse I want to be right now. I just do what I can.’”

The coordinated day of action follows a series of protests led by nurses around the country to demand increased supplies of proper protective equipment, like face masks and shields, hospital gowns, and shoe and head covers—which falls short of what workers in other countries like China and Italy received. On April 3, a group of nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan called for masks and hazmat suits, holding photos of their deceased colleagues. In late March, dozens of nurses at a hospital in the Bronx protested revisions of safety protocols that forced them to reuse face masks and other protective gear. In recent days, workers have protested the firings of workers who have spoken out about the lack of healthcare precautions at their hospitals. Meanwhile, some hospitals like NYU Lagone and West Hills in Los Angeles have forbidden workers from speaking to the media.

“I am extremely worried. We need way more gowns, shoe covers, and head covers,” Julia Keefe, a nurse at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn, who will participate in Wednesday’s protest, told Motherboard. “There’s been an entire loss of protocols around infection control because of the shortage of supplies. Instead we’re making them up as we go along.”

Keefe says that nurses working in her hospital receive a single face mask and gown per day, which means that they likely expose other workers and patients to the virus as they walk through the hospital throughout their shifts. Some nurses wear trash bags and shower caps from home.

At least five workers at her south Brooklyn hospital have died from Covid-19 in recent days, Keefe said, noting that most healthcare workers who have died are from Black and Latino communities which have faced nearly double the death rate of white communities in New York City.

Typically, most nurses receive two patients to care for, but in recent weeks, some emergency room nurses have been required to look after up to 20 critically ill people at once,Keefe said.

“We want people to know that healthcare workers are dying here. The politicians are calling us heroes, but they’re not doing enough to prevent further deaths,” said Keefe.

Organizers expect that the healthcare community around Brooklyn will attend Wednesday’s protest at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, either by standing six feet apart on sidewalks or holding signs in their cars.

The national leaders of Wednesday’s protests say that the Defense Production Act, which gives the federal government power to force private industry to produce certain goods deemed necessary for national defense, should be used to mandate that companies manufacture gowns, N-95 masks, and ventilators.

Healthcare workers at Temple University in Pennsylvania told Motherboard they have been given one-size-fits-all KN95 masks, which have come under scrutiny for their effectiveness, due to supply shortages of the gold standard N95 masks. Managers require healthcare workers wear these masks for the duration of 12-hour shifts, rather than change them after seeing each patient, as typically mandated.

Are you working on the frontlines on the Covid-19 pandemic? Do you have a story to share about your working conditions. We'd love to heard from you. Please get in touch with Lauren at Lauren.gurley@vice.com or on Signal 201-897-2109.

A 62-year-old nurse working in the intensive care unit at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared losing their job, told Motherboard that this week they have been overwhelmed by new patients experiencing severe respiratory symptoms and directives from management to “train new nurses on the fly,” without N95 masks, or “mask fittings” that hospitals typically conduct under normal circumstances to ensure that contaminants do not slip in.

“These knock-off masks make me feel like I’m wearing a piece of toilet paper on my face,” the worker said. “It’s considerably less secure than the N95 masks we used to wear. Some come out of the packaging broken, and the straps break. It’s criminal that we don’t have N95 masks.”

“You look at what the healthcare workers in China and Italy received and it puts up to shame,” they continued. “We’re wearing flimsy isolation gowns and we get one face shield for the entire pandemic.”