Nurses’ union makes plea for supplies, COVID-19 tests

“There are no private or state solutions that are going to be sufficient to solve this.”

Health care providers are expressing concerns about their ability to provide care on the front lines amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Health care providers are expressing concerns about their ability to provide care on the front lines amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 20, 2020 at 5:36pm

The second-largest nurses’ union called Friday for more emergency supplies and COVID-19 tests, as health care providers continue to express concerns about their ability to provide care on the front lines.

The American Federation of Teachers, a 300,000-member group that represents nurses and educators, also said it is still pushing for a policy that it sought in the second COVID-19 package: directing an emergency temporary standing order from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

A standing order would require that hospitals and other facilities adhere to infectious disease control protocols and shield nurses from exposure to COVID-19 by providing proper protective equipment. Violators would be penalized.

While it was part of recent negotiations, the language did not make it into the second COVID-19 law.

Hospitals groups including the American Hospital Association called on their supporters last week to urge lawmakers to eliminate the provision in the bill, arguing that it would be be difficult to implement due to the shortage of masks.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called for a federal solution to the national shortage in supplies, including tests and protective equipment such as masks.

“There are no private or state solutions that are going to be sufficient to solve this,” she said. “We need the federal task force to actually deploy every asset in America to have these protective equipment made immediately and not be sold in the private market.”

She added that “this is a policy that the federal government must do, and not just say but execute on.”

She said the organization conducted a call recently with individuals from South Korea, Japan, and Italy — who did not report similar shortages of masks or other protective equipment.

“If I sound angry, I am. It’s a matter of supply, and the federal government has not focused on getting us  … a supply of masks, a supply of hospital gowns,” Weingarten said.

Katie Oppenheim, president of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, said during a press call with reporters Friday that it is difficult for even those caring for COVID-19 patients to get tested.

“Nurses want to come to work and just take care of patients regardless of their own health conditions, as long as it’s safe,” Oppenheim said.

“We currently do have drive-thru testing here,” she said, but added it is difficult to get through the screening process even after exposure. “We just have to make the testing more available, especially for front-line health care workers and others.”

Rationing supplies

Nurses on the call said their facilities have pushed to ration their personal protective equipment, or PPEs, in ways that they do not feel are safe for patients.

Adrienne Enghouse, president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said facilities are also limiting staff’s ability to even use their own equipment they bring from home.

“People are being asked to wash their hands with their gloves on and reuse their gloves. People are being giving a mask per shift. I’m not sure why we expect anything different,” she said. “We have a long history of not funding the infrastructure.”

Enghouse said she has been a nurse for 23 years and never before has she “seen people being handed one gown and told to make it work for a whole shift. It’s not safe.”

She also asked why PPE is not being redistributed from nonemergency medical services like dentistry.

Redetha Abrahams-Nichols, the assistant director of nursing at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, said nurses are often put in charge of rationing PPEs, which causes additional anxiety.

“We have a lot of anxious physicians and people from different services putting the stress on nurses to hand out supplies and make sure that supplies are rationed in the right way,” she said.

Anne Goldman, vice president for non-Education Department members at the United Federation of Teachers, called for an ongoing conversation with all health care employers.

“We have to support each and every step for our staffing capacity. We have to honor the boundaries with this disease, and we need this to be the priority now,” she said.

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