New York, NY – As states and municipalities around the nation move to reopen their economies, nurses working in the COVID-19 trenches here in New York City are warning that they are exhausted and ill-prepared for the second wave of infection many are sure is coming.
The national death toll from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is now well over 100,000 with the number of recorded cases moving towards two million.
Nevertheless, June 1, marked, at least to some degree, the reopening of businesses and the end of stay-at-home orders, in all 50 states.
LaborPress recently spoke to 31-year-old Montefiore Medical Center nurse Michelle Gonzalez about about the re-openings.
“Workers’ health and safety should be a priority before profit,” the active New York State Nurses Association [NYSNA] member said. “A lot of the companies we work for around the country are profit driven, so I don’t know if a safe reopening is entirely possible because we’re not getting the support and protection that workers need throughout the country.”
According to Gonzalez, frontline healthcare workers have just gone through some of the worst working conditions they have ever experienced in their lives.
“A lot of us have a degree of trauma from what we’ve had to endure and see,” she said. “With that knowledge, we’re especially precarious and a little bit worried about a second wave possibly overwhelming us.”
Many places around the country that began to reopen their economies last month, were later forced to back up or close again after coronavirus cases spiked.
Sonoma County, California, for instance, began loosening safety measures in early May, but than had to later pump the brakes after seeing cases double in the span of two weeks.
New York remains the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States with more than 375,000 recorded cased and nearly 30,000 fatalities.
This weekend’s mass demonstrations protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, are also fueling new concerns about another spike happening here as well as other cities across the country.
“Hopefully, the protective equipment is there,” Gonzalez said. “If the protective equipment runs out — we’re back in another f- – – -ing nightmare. The worst part of this nightmare is I know it can get worse and worse. It’s only been the last two weeks that things are kind of calming down in my unit. But it’s a sense of false security. We all feel happy that things are a little bit quieter — but we’re also scared because we know at any moment, that shit is going to hit the fan again. We know it — it’s not a question.”
Governor Cuomo began easing restrictions regionally in Mid-May. New York City is supposed to move to the first phase of reopening next week.
“If they tell us they have the [personal protection] equipment — that’s the same ting that told us in February,” Gonzalez said. [Our institution] told us we’re prepared for a pandemic. Then when the pandemic came two weeks later, they were telling me to reuse a mask. That’s not prepared; that means you weren’t prepared — your pants were down, and now, you’ve been found out.”
At Montefiore, the administration opened up additional Intensive Care Units in an effort to meet the demand of COVID-19 patients. But they did not staff them with additional workers.
“They just made the other units short,” Gonzalez said. “There was no safety — there was no regulation to how many patients we could have. This is concerning, not just for the nurse, but for the patient — because patients deserve to get the care that they need.”
Gonzalez says that there have been days when she was attempting to care for as many as four critically ill patients in the ICU, and other nurses had even more.
“The days that I had up to four, I came home and cried like a baby,” she said. “Your body cannot physically do that. You can’t be at two places at once. So, you just run to room to room to room, neglecting your own body’s needs. Not eating, not drinking because you can’t take off the mask. Not going to the bathroom for 12 hours. You know, when you go home and you realize, ‘Oh, my god — I didn’t go to the bathroom today!’”
The punishing working conditions that the pandemic has wrought is forcing nurses and other healthcare workers to leave the profession entirely.
“People who were trying to wait it out to the end of the year for retirement are leaving,” Gonzalez said. “There are still an immense amount of people out sick from COVID. We get hit again…staffing-wise — we’re not ready for this. We’ll be in the same predicament.”
Clapping for doctors, nurses and other essential workers is not enough, Gonzalez also said. Instead, the beleaguered healthcare worker who has spent her entire career in the Bronx, is urging New Yorkers to mobilize and pressure elected officials to pass the NY Health Act and Medicare for All.
“Claps don’t do nothing for me,” she said. “Call your local state representative — demand that emergency Medicare for all be passed. This country has over 30 million people who have lost their jobs and are unemployed because your employment is directly connected to your health insurance. That means that 30 million people are out of health insurance in the middle of a pandemic. I am very concerned about what they looks like for the future. I am very concerned. I know for a fact, that people are not coming into the emergency room because they don’t have insurance and possibly dying. These things cannot continue to exist — especially in the middle of a pandemic. We need emergency Medicare for all.”