Eight months into the pandemic, nurses say they still aren't getting the safety equipment they need

Salon spoke with nurses and other frontline workers who say their safety is threatened by negligent employers

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 24, 2020 2:00PM (EDT)

Nurses hold a meeting on one of five Covid-19 wards at Whiston Hospital in Merseyside where patients are taken to recover from the virus. (Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)
Nurses hold a meeting on one of five Covid-19 wards at Whiston Hospital in Merseyside where patients are taken to recover from the virus. (Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

Since the start of the pandemic, around 635,000 Americans have been hospitalized for symptoms related to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The massive hospital influx of COVID-19 patients in this span has taxed the American healthcare system, in particular nurses, who deal with the minute-by-minute needs of these hundreds of thousands of patients. Unfortunately, many of those nurses say they have not been receiving the help that they need in return.

According to a report released last month by National Nurses United, the largest organization of registered nurses in the United States, at least 213 nurses in the United States have died of COVID-19 and related complications since Sept. 16, nearly three-fifths of whom were nurses of color. (By contrast, just under one fourth of American registered nurses are people of color.) National Nurses United also told Salon that 232 nurses have died overall as of Friday.

The National Nurses United report also found that at least 1,718 health care workers have died of COVID-19 and related complications, including registered nurses; nearly one-third of the hospital health care workers who suffered this fate were registered nurses. Overall, their report found that there have been at least 258,768 cases of COVID-19 among health care workers, a number representing 166 percent of the 156,306 cases reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, their report states that the CDC is underreporting them.

Nurses are noticing this, too. A survey released in July of more than 21,200 nurses nationwide found that only 24 percent of nurses believe their employer is making sure they have a safe workplace. Only 31 percent say that every patient is screened for COVID-19. 36 percent are afraid of developing COVID-19, and 43 percent are afraid that they will spread the disease to a family member.

The data is even more sobering when it comes to personal protective equipment, or PPE, with 87 percent of nurses saying they were required to reuse at least one piece of PPE at some point. Nurses also report chronic understaffing issues, with 27 percent of those who work in hospitals reporting that staffing has declined in recent months, even though the likelihood of patient death increases by 7 percent for every extra patient in a hospital nurse's workload.

"I'm so disappointed in our lack of preparation as a country for a pandemic," a nurse from Pennsylvania wrote to Salon. "N95s [a type of surgical mask with a respirator on it] quickly became sparse and we were forced to reuse them for days, basically until [they] broke, when they are intended per the manufacturer to be single/ one time use. We had to put them in a brown paper bag in between uses. Up until then we were to throw them away immediately after entering an airborne room. Face shields we wiped between uses [were] reused until they broke."

The nurse added that after the hospital where she works ran out of the larger 3M N95s, "those of us who were fitted for the large had to be fit for this thin, cheap 'duck bill' N95 which offered very little protection, but it was the only kind they were able to get." Nurses who did not pass the fit test for the new N95s, including the one who spoke to Salon, were told to wear "a PAPR — which is a whole face hood attached to airflow coming from a belt you wear. Hoods are supposed to be for one person and disconnected from the air/battery pack after use, cleaned with disinfectant and reused by THE SAME PERSON... but they didn't have enough hoods, so we had to share them which is disgusting and very poor infection control. We actually had some healthcare workers quit when they found out they would have to share hoods. I don't blame them."

Another nurse-midwife, also located in Pennsylvania, told a similar story.

"When [COVID-19] first hit we did not have enough PPE like many others. We were given 1 mask per week," the nurse-midwife wrote to Salon. "We were working unsafe hours due to trying to reduce number of employees in the unit at any given time. I was working 24 hour shifts every other day, so less than 24 hours off in between shifts. During this time we were made to cover clinic patients and inpatient patients at the same time. Our normal schedule would have one provider seeing patients in the clinic and one provider managing inpatient patients. It greatly increased the risk for error and was unsafe patient care."

She added, "Currently, the OR [operating room] is trying to recoup lost revenue due to canceled elective surgeries over covid shutdown. There are four OR rooms and one is always supposed to remain open for labor emergencies. However, as of late, all four rooms have been booked for elective non-emergent cases!" The nurse-midwife pointed out that this "is a huge risk and patient safety care, all in the name of 'the bottom line.'"

Some nurses are taking action. Earlier this month, nurses at San Leandro and Alameda Hospitals in California went on a five-day strike to protest regarding concerns about patient safety as well as alleged issues involving staffing, management bargaining with nurses in bad faith and punitive management actions. Earlier this week, the nurses scored a partial victory when the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to accept the resignation of the Alameda Health System's Board of Trustees.

"We just can't give the care you need because of this corporate drive to save money," Lisa, a nurse who works in one of the Alameda Health System's hospitals and participated in the strike, told Salon. "We're at existential odds with one another on a daily basis. And we need to burn the system down and we need Medicare for All. End of story. End of story. Our medical-industrial complex is broken and ineffective and absurd."

She added, "I can't emphasize that enough. I really can't."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Coronavirus Covid-19 National Nurses United Nurses Original Pandemic Ppe Reporting