NEW YORK, N.Y.—“We need to have proper PPE,” longtime nurse Stephanie McGrath says at a small lunch-hour rally outside the Veterans Administration hospital on East 23rd Street Aug. 5. “The VA supplies are below standards.”
The rally was part of a national day of protest organized by National Nurses United, with actions at more than 200 health-care facilities, including about 20 hospitals in the Kaiser chain in California, the Cook County Department of Public Health offices in Chicago, and Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., where nurses will vote Aug. 18 on whether to be represented by NNU.
“We’re running out of gowns, we’re running out of head protection, we’re running out of foot protection,” NNU local leader Raymond Fletcher told the rally. “Once we get infected and get sick, who’s going to take care of the patients?”
The union had three main demands: That the President invoke the Defense Production Act to require industry to produce personal protective equipment such as masks; that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration establish an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases; and that the Senate pass the HEROES Act, a bill approved by the House in May that includes the two previous demands and would also provide economic aid in the form of cash payments, extended unemployment benefits, aid paying rent, and subsidies to cover child care.
Masks are a particular complaint. “These masks are pretty, but they don’t do the job,” said Lisa, a medical-surgical nurse who did not want to give her last name. A diagnostic technician who asked to be identified as Jasmine said the hospital is only issuing her three masks a week.
“Nurses are telling me they can smell everything,” Fletcher told LaborPress. “When you’re wearing an N95, the only thing you’re supposed to smell is your breath.”
Lora Logan, another medical-surgical nurse, holds up two N95 masks, a turquoise 3M 1860 model and a pale-blue Moldex. The 3M 1860, she says, “is very uncomfortable, but very effective.” The other, which the hospital is using now, is not effective.
“You can’t mold them to fit your face,” she explains. “Any illness that’s contagious, you need a mask that seals around your face properly. This goes beyond COVID.”
“Our employees have performed exceptionally well throughout this national emergency, providing lifesaving care to hundreds of Veterans,” a spokesperson for the hospital responded. “VA New York Harbor Health Care System’s PPE practices have helped limit our current COVID-19 employee infection rate to 0.11% of the workforce. VA NYHHCS provides employees with all required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in accordance with [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines and the facility is stocked with an adequate supply of PPE for current demand.”
Logan got infected with the virus in April, at the epidemic’s local peak, and was out for almost two weeks. “I definitely got it on the job,” she says. Stephanie McGrath, who also got infected, missed three months.
Jasmine, the diagnostic technician whose duties include testing patients for COVID-19, says shortages of other equipment are affecting her work. She’s supposed to wipe down the chair after every patient, but without enough wipes, “if we see 100 patients for bloodwork, how are we expected to clean after every patient?”
“We’re being asked to reuse PPE,” intensive-care-unit nurse Marcus Ashby told the rally. At one point, he said, he had to take care of five patients on ventilators, while the recommended patient load for ICU nurses is two.
For him, the epidemic illuminated the connections between racial injustices such as that black patients are often perceived as being in less severe pain than they really are, and the police killing of emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky in March.
“NNU believes now is the time for change,” he said. “How can I practice knowing that my people are targets?”
“Nurses know that this country’s rampant social, economic, and racial injustice has been killing our patients all along. COVID-19 is just forcing us as a society to face these problems,” NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo said in a statement announcing the protests. “These recent COVID surges and uncontrolled infections and deaths, the failure of employers to protect our nurses and other workers, the outrageously high rates of unemployment and hunger, the totalitarian crackdown on protesters — every crisis we are seeing now can be traced back to our failure to value human lives over profit.”