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New York hospital workers forgo tests and gulp back fears

David Kocieniewski and David Voreacos, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Coronavirus testing also hasn't been available to the city's more than 3,000 emergency medical services personnel, including paramedics and emergency medical technicians, said Anthony Almojera, the vice president of the Local 3621 FDNY EMS officers union in New York City, one of the largest unions of its kind in the nation. At least 150 of the personnel are sidelined with what they take to be coronavirus, he said.

"We are here to help," Almojera said. "Nobody is complaining about that. What we are complaining about is not having enough of what we need to keep us safe. The masks, testing for first responders. There was no plan for this by the city and department, and it shows."

Staff shortages have also forced the closure of the Brooklyn Heights and West Village locations of CityMD, which runs 43 urgent care centers in New York.

Quarantines of 14 days have generally been advised for anyone with direct contact with an infected person as a safeguard to protect individuals and slow the spread of the virus. For health-care workers, the practice was similar. New York State recently issued emergency guidelines allowing exposed workers to simply self-monitor -- taking their temperature twice a day and wearing masks while in the hospital. They are instructed to work only in wards dedicated to COVID-19 patients.

But a state directive of March 16 warns that those standards may be impossible to uphold.

"As the pandemic grows, all staff will need to be assigned to treat all patients, regardless of risk," it said.

At Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey, about 35 employees are in quarantine. One of their colleagues, 44-year-old food services worker Andres Benitez, died Monday. He was loved for his "huge personality" and warm smile, said Michael Maron, the chief executive officer. Maron himself has been quarantined at home after his test came back positive.

"The entire hospital is traumatized," said Dr. Adam Jarrett, the chief medical officer. "When you lose someone from that type of condition when you're all in the trenches trying to help patients with that condition, it takes an even harder toll on the staff."

 

The toll among hospital staff is mounting. Dr. James Pruden, the director of emergency preparedness at St. Joseph's University Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey, is in critical condition. The nurse in intensive care at Montefiore is on a ventilator, according to Raymond.

Officials at Hackensack Meridian and Holy Name noted that workers may have been exposed in the community rather than at the hospital. Speaking for a broad group, Raymond said that nurses feel "incredibly disrespected" by their leaders.

"We don't understand why outside governmental agencies rolled back the guidelines and were able to do that," Raymond said. "We don't understand why larger government hasn't mandated industry to mass produce this equipment that they desperately need. We just don't understand it. We feel as though we are fodder and lambs to the slaughter."

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