health

Nurses Face Scores More Deaths Due to Protective Gear Shortage, Union Suit Charges

Nurses protest a lack of protective measures during the coronavirus outbreak outside the Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx, April 17, 2020.
Nurses protest a lack of protective measures during the coronavirus outbreak outside the Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx, April 17, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Nearly three out of four New York nurses have been exposed to coronavirus, with hundreds testing positive, scores hospitalized and at least six killed by COVID-19, the nurses union charged Monday.

The New York State Nurses Association, in court papers, estimated the death toll of members could reach 250 at the current rate of infection.

The data emerged as the union filed separate lawsuits Monday against the state Health Department, the Westchester County hospital system and Montefiore Medical Center seeking court intervention “to protect the health, safety and lives of NYSNA RNs, their patients, their families and their communities.”

The suits ask the court to make sure hospitals abide by scientifically approved methods of protection and medical care, including ensuring that nurses are provided with proper protective gear and that they’re only assigned to tasks for which they are already trained.

In court papers, the 42,000-member association revealed a union survey found that statewide, 954 registered nurses statewide have tested positive for coronavirus and 84 are currently hospitalized. The union emphasized these numbers are extremely conservative, noting relatively few nurses have been tested.

Test Pleas ‘Routinely Rejected’

In an affidavit, Lisa Baum, a registered nurse and the union’s lead occupational health and safety representative, said the survey found 72% of members had been exposed to COVID-19 in the last few weeks.

“Many RNs have reported that they are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 such as fever, cough and shortness of breath,” Baum stated.

“Yet when these RNs have asked their own health care employer to have them tested for COVID-19, their requests have been routinely rejected,” she added. “RNs have had to scramble to find testing on their own, often unsuccessfully, for a virus that they were exposed to and likely contracted at work.”

Given the trajectory of the virus, the union estimates around 11% of members — more than 4,600 — will likely test positive and up to 1,000 will wind up hospitalized. The union also estimates 250 nurses could die from COVID-19.

In the city’s 11 public hospitals alone, more than 900 workers — including doctors, nurses and tech staff — have tested positive for the virus, officials said last week, amid limited testing.

Nurses Document Woes

The suits were filed in Manhattan Federal Court, and in state courts in Manhattan and Westchester County. In the federal suit, Baum detailed a litany of alleged failures she said endangered the lives of nurses working front-line duty under dire conditions.

As the crisis expanded, the union created a COVID Protest of Assignment form that documents what labor leaders called the persistent and infuriating struggle inside New York’s hospitals. As of Monday, nurses had submitted 1,281 forms.

The forms record nurses’ frustrating efforts to obtain proper protective gear — such as N95 masks, face shields, gowns and gloves — crucial to the effort to contain the virus’ spread.

The forms also document how nurses have been required to work outside the scope of their training. Nurses at Bellevue Hospital recently detailed this issue to THE CITY, saying some were asked to sign so-called “competency forms” certifying that they’d been trained in intensive care unit duties for which they weren’t qualified.

Medical workers greet Mayor Bill de Blasio outside Bellevue Hospital, April 10 2020.
Medical workers greet Mayor Bill de Blasio outside Bellevue Hospital, April 10 2020. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

During daily virtual town meetings, Baum said she has heard from nurses who “have consistently expressed their objective fears for their and their families’ lives.”

In many cases, the union charged, medical facilities have ordered nurses who were displaying symptoms to return to work before they had adequately recovered.

“Many RNs have expressed to me that they are terrified that if forced to return to work prematurely, prior to recovering from COVID-19, they will infect their co-workers and patients,” Baum stated.

Jonah Bruno, a spokesperson for the state Health Department, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

But, he wrote: “We are deeply grateful for the ongoing efforts of New York’s health care workers to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by testing people who may be infected and treating those who are most in need. The State of New York continues to take every step necessary to ensure that healthcare workers, particularly those who are sampling and providing direct care, have the support and supplies needed to address this unprecedented public health emergency.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Westchester Medical Center called the suit “irresponsible and a distraction.”

“We know, and our care providers know, that the allegations in NYSNA’s lawsuit are wrong,” the statement said. “Our focus is, and has always been, protecting our workforce, which has been aligned from the outset in treating the most severely ill patients battling COVID-19.”

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