Report from a Front-line Nurse

UMass Memorial Nurse (Massachusetts Nurses Association, personal capacity)

  1. The initial shortages of the pandemic are no longer being discussed. Are they over? Do you feel safe in the workplace? Do you and your co-workers have access to proper supplies?  Is there adequate testing?

Coronavirus cases are rising in Massachusetts once again. More of our patients being tested are coming back positive. Over 350 staff at my hospital have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Right now, that number is increasing daily.

All patients who are admitted are tested for COVID. However, until the test comes back, asymptomatic patients are placed in wards with the general population. So there have been instances where a patient who ends up testing positive already spent a day on a non-COVID floor, with a roommate, being cared for by staff without appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

This week we had a patient test positive for COVID. Before we knew that the patient was positive, three nurses and two doctors were in the room with only a surgical mask and eye protection on, meaning they were potentially exposed to coronavirus. 

However, hospital policy is to not test the staff unless they develop symptoms, even after being exposed. Exposed staff are not quarantined. Instead, they are still at work, potentially putting other patients and staff at risk for exposure. This is why outbreaks continue to occur in my workplace. 

Even though many colleges and universities have weekly COVID testing for students and staff, we have no regular testing at my hospital.

This is unsafe for staff, but also unsafe for patients and the community. When nurses are infected, we are potentially spreading the virus to our patients, many of whom are high risk. We are also out in the community potentially spreading coronavirus. 

We are still being asked to reuse N95s and surgical masks. N95s are UV treated between uses, and often smell burnt when they are returned to us for use. The UV and Hydrogen peroxide treatments have given us headaches and sore throats. 

We have never been given the recommended hair or shoe covers to care for coronavirus patients. We still wear and launder our own scrubs, bringing home contaminated clothing that could infect our families. 

These unsafe conditions are not unique to my workplace. In fact, many other hospitals and healthcare facilities have worse working conditions. Conditions are also dangerous for many workers outside the healthcare setting. For instance, 20,000 Amazon workers have tested positive for COVID. This is a pervasive national problem that has given the United States the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths per population.

  1. What’s the mood among your coworkers? How have the bosses responded to the pandemic? What has the union’s response been?

For nurses, I think the bosses take advantage of the fact that we care about our patients and want to help them. They know that we will keep working despite unsafe conditions. But nurses are also scared, and angry that we are treated as disposable.

According to hospital policy, we are exposed only if we spend more than 15 minutes less than 6 feet away from someone who is COVID positive without a mask on. By this logic, none of us are exposed at work since we are always wearing masks. Then why are we having outbreaks at work? 

The hospital would rather gamble with getting staff and patients sick than pay to quarantine and test us appropriately. They would rather gamble by placing new patients in general wards instead of isolating all new admissions until their COVID tests return negative. In short, they are making more money by gambling with staff and patient lives.

The bosses point out that many other workplaces have it worse than we do. They also say that there is scarcity in terms of PPE, COVID tests, and money. They tell us to be grateful for what supplies and tests we do have, instead of asking for what we deserve—to be protected, and to have our patients, families, and communities protected.

UMass Memorial has the money to supply appropriate PPE and pay exposed staff to quarantine. For instance, despite being a “public” hospital, UMass Memorial has $171 million invested in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. Eric Dickson, president and CEO of UMass Memorial, makes $2.3 million in annual compensation. The money is there – safety practices just aren’t a priority for administration to fund.

Our union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), has issued many good statements about the need for PPE. They also issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. Unfortunately, at my hospital, there have not been any actions, events, or petitions called by the MNA on either issue.

The MNA used union funds to purchase N95s for our staff. While the PPE was helpful for protecting us, we should not have to spend our own money (via union dues) on basic protection for work. Instead, we should be demanding that the government quickly produce and distribute PPE to essential workers and all people, and that our employer be responsible for supplying proper PPE.  

  1. How do you think nurses can win demands about increased pay, lower patient-to-staff ratios, and personal protective equipment (PPE)?

I think nurses need to organize from the bottom up within our unions. Nurses who do not have unions also have the power to organize from below, as nurses at Massachusetts General Hospital showed when they won a fight against cuts to their retirement and pensions. 

Right now there is an urgent need for nurses to speak out and organize for better PPE and COVID testing. Our lives and our patients’ and families’ lives depend on it.

Our labor is what makes healthcare facilities run. By threatening to withdraw our labor, we could win many demands. Imagine how powerful a national nurses strike demanding justice for Breonna Taylor could be. Or a national strike demanding Medicare-for-All and a publicly run healthcare system. 

To build up to these types of actions, we need to organize within and across our workplaces on the issues we face every day at work and in our communities, fight back collectively through walkouts, sit-ins, slowdowns, and strikes, and encourage rank-and-file debate and discussion within our unions. We need to fight for democratic unions run by and for workers. We need to argue for unions to take up political issues alongside economic ones like racism, poverty, environmental devastation, and universal free healthcare. If the current union leadership won’t take up the struggle, then we need to elect new union leadership that will. We need to build unions willing to defend us and our communities including by breaking from the Republican and Democratic parties who laid the basis for the current deadly public health and economic crises through brutal austerity and neoliberal policies. 

Image Credit: og-emmet via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0