US nurses anxious and angry in second COVID-19 wave

Washington: In Albany, New York, an outbreak of the coronavirus erupted among nurses and patients in the cancer unit of a hospital.

###

Across the state, nurses at hospitals in the Buffalo area bought their own masks and face shields out of concern about the quality of supplies in stock.

###

And when an emergency room nurse in New Rochelle began her shift, she was asked to care for 15 patients, after her co-workers called out sick.

###

The accounts recall the early days of the pandemic, when the virus ravaged New York – but these scenes took place over the past several weeks. Nurses and other health care workers in the state have begun to warn about the conditions in hospitals, as virus patients are checking in at an alarming rate.

###

“We’re worse off in some ways than we were in the beginning,” said Shalon Matthews, an emergency room nurse in New Rochelle. “We need staff, we need help, we need resources. I’m fearful for my patients and I’m fearful that the same thing that happened back in March, it’s going to happen again – and once again, we’re not prepared.”

###

Hospitalisations in the state have recently reached levels not seen since May, when New York was the epicentre of the crisis in the United States. On Wednesday, more than 6,000 people were hospitalized and being treated for the virus.

###

The improvement of virus treatments methods, leading to lower death rates, and the arrival of the vaccine this week make a repeat of the spring seem unlikely. Nurses are among a group prioritised to get some of the first doses of the vaccine.

###

Poor safety protocols

###

Yet more and more nurses in the state are now worried that poor safety protocols at their hospitals and low staffing levels – partly a result of departures after low morale in the spring – could put patients at risk, and increase the physical and emotional toll on health care workers.

###

Reflecting the growing tension, roughly 1,000 workers walked off their jobs at health centres in New Rochelle and Albany earlier this month, echoing a growing trend around the country.

###

Earlier this fall, more than 400 nurses at a hospital in Connecticut went on strike over issues including a lack of personal protective equipment. Twice as many nurses took the same step weeks later in suburban Pennsylvania, citing fears around low staffing levels. The same concerns were raised last week at multiple medical facilities in California.

###

At Albany Medical Center, Michael Fitzsimmons, a critical care nurse at the hospital for 23 years, said nurses have been upset that the hospital’s protective equipment and safety protocols feel insufficient.

###

Over the summer, nurses were directed to stop labelling single-use N95 masks so they could be decontaminated and reused up to 20 times, Fitzsimmons said. But he said the reprocessed masks that he and others have been given are often discoloured, stained or do not fit correctly.

###

A firm in Putnam County that consults on industrial hygiene examined a federal complaint that a state nurses’ union filed over general procedures and found that workers were being placed at an “unreasonable risk of exposure” to the virus.

###

“The materials used to clean them are destructive and eventually going to affect their fit,” Edward Olmsted, who runs the firm, said of the masks. “It almost gives nurses a false sense of security.”

###

Masks reused

###

The CDC recommends that a single N95 mask be reused up to five times, and only when a hospital is experiencing a “crisis” level shortage of supplies, like many did in the spring.

###

A hospital spokesman, Matt Markham, said that Albany Medical has more than a 90-day supply of gear. He added that all masks are inspected before they are either kept in supply or destroyed, and that staff members are not forced to reuse a mask they are not comfortable using.

###

Late last month, at least eight patients and 14 staff members at Albany Medical tested positive for the virus after an outbreak in an oncology unit with 27 beds, according to the New York State Nurses Association.

###

Three nurses from the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, blamed the breakdown on poor safety protocols and a delayed response.

###

As patients began experiencing symptoms of the virus, they said, some were not isolated in single rooms away from others. And after the first positive tests, the unit stayed open for more than a day. About 10 days later, patients began re-entering the unit, though the nurses said that not all areas were properly cleaned. They say no protocols have been changed.

###

Larger stockpiles

###

“I was devastated,” said one nurse, who tested positive for the virus after the outbreak. “Nurses take a code of ethics and we’re not supposed to inflict any harm, and because of the policies at the hospital, that happened.”

###

Markham said the outbreak occurred after a staff member worked while ill and wore a surgical mask incorrectly. He added that hospitalised patients are not always tested because of the “current community prevalence level.” The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has said it will investigate procedures at the hospital following the union’s complaint.

###

“Any accusations that we are not following the appropriate polices, procedures or approach to the safety of our staff and patients are frankly absurd,” Dr Fred Venditti, the executive vice president for system care delivery at the hospital, said at a recent news conference.

###

Medical personnel and staff members in regions of New York and across the country do agree there are some ways that hospitals have better prepared themselves for the virus. Many are maintaining larger stockpiles of personal protective equipment, and patients are often diagnosed and cared for more effectively.

###

Still, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expressed concern about the readiness of hospitals to handle a resurgence of the virus in the winter months, restructuring guidelines for determining virus-related restrictions to focus more heavily on hospital capacity. As infections and hospitalizations have begun to soar across the state, Cuomo has said potential staff shortages are now greater worries than available beds for patients.

###

Retired doctors

###

Cuomo has asked hospital officials in the state to identify retired doctors and nurses to help during the second wave of the virus. In western New York, where hospitalization rates are among the highest in the state, nurses say there is already a need.

###

“It’s absolutely a major issue,” said Crystal Knihinicki, an intensive care unit nurse at Erie County Medical Centre. “I just don’t understand how there are not enough people in all of these hospitals. How is this possible?”

###

Turnover among nurses, which was high even before the pandemic, has continued throughout the year.

###

The nurses’ union said that in New Rochelle, more than 20 nurses have left the hospital since March, and Albany Medical had more than 150 nurses leave in the first six months of the year.

###

Across the state and country, early retirements or moves into less intense work have grown as the virus magnifies some of the problems for nurses. In New York City and areas of the state that were particularly hard hit in the spring, many also worry about the emotional toll nurses may face.

###

Jessica DeStefano, who helped open up the first virus unit at Albany Medical in the spring and has been a nurse for nearly 20 years, said she might leave the profession when the pandemic ends.

###

“I say every day, ‘What’s my next job going to be after this is over?’” DeStefano said. “I have to get out of here. I can’t go on not having the staff we need and not having the resources we need. I can’t do this for the rest of my life.”

Leave A Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *