Sacramento Valley Union Labor Bulletin

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Nurses say PPE shortages still hurting safety

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)—A continued shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), slow distribution of anti-virus vaccines and harassment by virus skeptics are combining to hamper the national fight to curb the coronavirus pandemic, a group of union nurses say.

And while the RNs, members of National Nurses United, brought those problems to the California congressional delegation, they easily apply nationwide.

The nurses started raising alarms about the shortage of PPE, coast-to-coast, even before the pandemic was officially declared last March 13. “We still don’t have the PPE we need to do our jobs safely,” NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo told lawmakers.

“If nurses continue to get sick and die” from the coronavirus, “who will take care of our patients?” asked Shannon Cotton, an RN at the University of California-San Diego hospital.

Some 309 RNs and 2,500 health care workers nationwide have died from the coronavirus, officially COVID-19, since the pandemic began, NNU reports. The national death toll, as of midnight Jan. 26, was 423,593, almost equal to the population of Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, Democratic President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to order firms to speed up production and shipment of anti-viral vaccine, delivering 200 million doses of it to the government by the end of June.

The bottleneck, however, is in shipping the vaccines to every state, D.C., seven U.S. territories and six big cities states for injection into people’s arms at hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies.

Right now, the head of Biden’s coronavirus task force told governors, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ships 8.6 million doses are shipped weekly. The new weekly target is 10 million, Jeff Zients said. But neither Biden, nor the governors, nor the hospitals, nor the union has a solution yet for massive resistance.

And it’s not just in nursing homes, where while 80%−85% of patients are being vaccinated once the doses arrive, only 25%−50% of staff are, often due to nursing home bosses holding shots back for a second round or future use.

It’s also public pressure by right-wingers to defy anti-coronavirus mandates and recommendations, one nurse said.

California is NNU’s home state and its largest affiliate, as well as the nation’s most-populous state, home to one of every eight people in the U.S. It also leads the nation in total cumulative coronavirus cases and deaths are again rising there, the nurses said. And, inland, it contains heavily right-wing areas, too.

The most-harrowing story, of right-wing resistance to any anti-viral measures, came from another California nurse. PAI is withholding her name to protect her and her family from future threats and reprisals.

“I live in an area with a lot of naysayers who refuse to wear masks in public and follow” federal Centers for Disease Control “guidelines to protect public health,” she explained. “It makes it tough on nurses.”

The right-wingers, she added, include members of the Proud Boys—the violent group prodded to “Stand back and stand by” by former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump. The nurse said the Proud Boys drive around her neighborhood in pickup trucks and SUVs decorated with Confederate flags and threaten people who follow anti-virus rules.

She’s had to stop wearing her uniform in public, such as when buying groceries, unlike when the pandemic began. She’s also had to tell her husband and kids to go out the back door of their apartment complex to avoid right-wingers on the main street in front.

That’s an anti-coronavirus campaign problem that nobody on the NNU call, neither nurses nor lawmakers, had an answer for.

Besides lobbying lawmakers for PPE, the union sued the former GOP Trump regime’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration for an emergency federal rule ordering hospitals and nursing homes to develop and implement anti-virus protection plans. The GOP-named majority of the federal appeals court ruled against them.

The nurses are still lobbying lawmakers and the new, more-receptive Democratic Biden administration, and the meeting with Californian lawmakers and staffers was part of that. Without that PPE and other safeguards, they can’t care for or protect patients, they said.

“In Los Angeles County, one person is dying every six minutes,” the session moderator said. “Deaths have surged 82%” in recent weeks, she added.

“We still don’t have the PPE we need to do our job safely,” NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN, told them. “To make matters worse, the state has let employers violate nurse-to-patient (staffing) ratios.”

Those ratios, which NNU lobbied through the state legislature years ago, mandate minimum specific staff ratios for specific areas of hospital patient care, such as one RN for every two patients in an intensive care unit.

That California law countered insurers’ pressure on hospitals for cost-cutting through staff-cutting, which in turn lessens insurers’ payouts and raises their profits.

When the pandemic hit, the state Health Department let hospitals seek waivers of the ratios to help meet demand for care. Droves of hospitals did so, ten despite NNU members taking to the streets in public protests.

But the protests pushed the state to tell hospitals to undertake weekly COVID-19 testing of both providers—RNs, other nurses, and doctors—and patients. “But there has to be such weekly testing all over the country,” said Castillo.

Individual nurses also spoke up about what Kaiser Los Angeles RN Tinny Albogardo called “the chaos” in individual institutions where RNs must treat hordes of pandemic patients.

“My hospital got a waiver” of the nurse-to-patient ratios, she explained. As an RN in the hospital’s critical care level just below that of the intensive care unit, “I should be caring for no more than three patients. But I’m being bounced back and forth to four” or more. “And then the charge nurse wanted to give me more patients…It’s so frustrating when you know you can care for patients well, but don’t have the resources to do so.”

“In our ICU, we had a nurse-patient ratio of 2-to-1,” the state mandate, said Laura Healey, RN, of St. Mary’s Stroke Center, a Level I trauma hospital in Long Beach. With the waiver, plus a horde of coronavirus patients and its normal load of low-income and desperately ill patients from other ailments, “now it’s six to one. That’s 10 minutes per patient, max. This is not sustainable.”