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Tension, fear grip US health workers with critical protective gear running low

John Tozzi, Emma Court and David Kocieniewski, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

Health-care workers and others essential to the Covid-19 fight say they're increasingly frustrated that they're being sent into a deadly battle without the protective gear they need for themselves and their patients.

Tensions are particularly high in New York, where the number of coronavirus deaths have passed 1,000. Seven members of District Council 37, representing emergency medics, nurses' aides, respiratory therapists and others in the city's hospitals, have died from the virus, according to the union. But the concern is nationwide: The country's largest nurses' union has filed more than 125 complaints with federal workplace safety regulators alleging dangerous working conditions in hospitals.

"We are the richest country in the world and yet we can't protect our health-care providers when fighting the deadliest virus we've dealt with in most of our lifetimes," said Ryan Stanton, an American College of Emergency Physicians board member who works at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. "There's a significant level of distrust with physicians and nurses and others because we feel the requirements and suggestions for PPE are being downgraded because of availability and not because of science."

While much of America's professional class works remotely from home, most medical and emergency workers must show up in person to do their jobs. They say their lives are being put at risk in increasingly difficult situations and see no end. Statistics from China and Italy back them up: more than 3,300 health-care workers in China were infected by early March, and in Italy, 20% caught it, according to an editorial in The Lancet.

"Our members are exhausted, they are scared," Henry Garrido, executive director of DC 37, told press on a call Tuesday. "They continue to soldier on."

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which DC 37 is part of, aren't to the point of refusing to work, he said. They have called on President Donald Trump to use the Defense Production Act to ensure adequate supplies.

 

The health-care sector isn't alone. More and more workers deemed essential and not allowed to work from home are speaking out about the lack of adequate protective supplies like cleaners and masks, and policies ensuring workers are kept at proper distances and paid should they be forced to quarantine. Workers at Amazon and Whole Foods protested work conditions on Tuesday and their own lack of protective gear.

Unionized nurses planned to demonstrate this week at 15 hospitals owned by HCA Healthcare Inc., the nation's largest for-profit hospital operator. They allege that workers at some hospitals aren't given sufficient protection, have been punished for bringing their own N95 masks, and were told to continue working after being exposed to the virus, according to the union National Nurses United. An HCA spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

In normal times, respirators and surgical masks would be discarded after every patient encounter, but some now have to wear them all day and sometimes for several days. Karine Raymond, 56, a nurse at Montefiore Health Center in The Bronx, said rules for masks have been changing as the crisis has worsened, leading her to contemplate writing her will.

"Nurses aren't going to walk out," she said. "We're very realistic. We're doing the best we can. We're trying hard to try and help these poor souls without unduly opening ourselves up to anything dangerous. If we go down, then there's nobody left to care for the patients, is there?"

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