HPAE releases “Exposed & At-Risk,” a report on how COVID-19 pandemic affected New Jersey healthcare workers
In a new HPAE report released today, union members offer real-time first-hand accounts of caring for patients on the COVID-19 pandemic frontlines while battling employers for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other resources to do their life-saving work.
HPAE President Debbie White, RN, said the union conducted the survey because members are not getting the protection that they need on the job and healthcare facilities are not transparent about resources at hand to provide care and would not even tell heroic healthcare workers whether they’ve been exposed to the virus, whether person they are working next to has been exposed or infected. As a result, healthcare workers became infected, many got sick, including some who have been on ventilators for months, and some have died.
“The question that you have to ask is why wouldn’t you want these heroic workers who are sacrificing and risking so much to care for the rest of us, to have the very best protection possible to battle this horrendous disease?” White said.
“Exposed & At-Risk” offers results of the survey: About 1,100 union members took the survey and 20% said they became sick after being infected at work. Of survey respondents who reported getting sick, two out of three (66%) said they did not have the PPE they needed to provide COVID-19 patient care; nine out of ten (93%) said they never received training on how to decontaminate their PPE; three out of four had to reuse their single-use N95 respirators; more than half (58%) did not get to use the same kind of N95 they were fit tested for; almost three out of four (73%) had to supply and use their own PPE at work; 45% said they were present during the highest risk aerosolizing procedures performed on COVID-19 patients, without the proper PPE to protect them; and just (48%) under half were never trained about how to handle a used respirator safely.
State Sen. Linda Greenstein introduced legislation to require healthcare facilities to collect information on exposures and sickness and report the data to the New Jersey Department of Health.
“We must continue to respond to this pandemic with a thoughtful approach based in science and data,” Greenstein said. “Our healthcare workers are risking their health, safety and lives on the front lines against COVID-19 every day. We must do everything we can to mitigate the risk that they and their families face through their selfless work.”
New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney is sponsoring a bill that would provide a presumption that essential workers who contract COVID-19 did so during work duties, making them eligible for workers’ compensation medical and wage benefits. He spoke at the tele-news conference.
“We are counting on healthcare workers to care for patients during this trying time in our state and our nation’s history and it is only fair that when they catch this dread disease that we do right by them,” Sweeney said. “Like our public safety personnel as well as the grocery and other retail workers, we need to be mindful of the essential functions that healthcare workers are performing for our communities. We shouldn’t add to their burdens by making them jump through additional hoops.”
The report—which also detailed healthcare workers grappling with confusing and dizzying guidelines from state and federal agencies about hot to protect themselves, personal accounts of how they got infected with the virus and became sick—gave recommendations on preparedness plans, urgent measures to mitigate surges in the current pandemic as well as future disease outbreaks.
Rutgers University labor expert Dr. Yana Rodgers, speaking at today’s press conference, said the profit motive needs to be taken out of the equation when healthcare facilities considering PPE.
“Already, we are hearing again of grave shortages of PPE, as if we learned nothing from the first wave of this coronavirus pandemic,” Rodgers said. “If you treat PPE as a capital expense, then healthcare facilities administrators may be tempted to hoard their supplies or shrink their PPE stockpiles. Healthcare facilities simply do not have an economic incentive to encourage employees to use PPE, replace it frequently, or keep much of it in stock. And, in a disease outbreak, that could be deadly for healthcare workers and their patients.”
Elayne Kornblatt Phillips, former Clinical Associate Professor and Senior Research Program Officer at the University of Virginia School of Nursing, said the white paper as prepared by HPAE “is critical to understanding what has happened and is still happening” at healthcare facilities in New Jersey and nationwide during the pandemic.
“It exposes the nasty underbelly of healthcare politics,” said Phillips, who was also former director of research for International Healthcare Worker Safety Center at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “If we continue to fail, expect an even more critical shortage of essential workers to care for us. The recommendations contained in this report provide a map for all hospitals. Laws laid out in the recommendations address crucial issues, but laws alone will not suffice. They must be backed up with resources tied to enforcement. Only then will we have a chance of preserving the best of our healthcare system and protecting the health of our nation.”
Another expert who has reviewed the report, Epidemiologist and Professor David Michaels of George Washington University, said “Exposed & At-Risk dramatically exposes an unacceptable truth:
“This important report documents how New Jersey health care workers, on the front lines of the fight to save lives, are themselves being endangered by the lack of PPE and the failure of the state’s health care employers to take the steps necessary to protect them. And until public health and safety agencies step in to require that they be protected, it will be very difficult to stem this epidemic.”
Alice Barden, president of HPAE local 5004 at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, spoke of harrowing days during the pandemic, how many workers at hospitals suffered post-traumatic stress, experienced more death and severe illness in the past few months than the average critical care nurse would see in a lifetime.
“Not everyone died, but it was hard to realize that in the midst of this pandemic,” Barden said. “Working under the worst conditions imaginable, no matter how hard we tried, no matter how hard we worked, no matter how diligent we were to prevent infecting ourselves, it was not enough to keep people from dying, or to keep ourselves from getting sick with COVID-19.”
“The conditions we had to work under forced us to experience moral injury daily for months on end,” Barden continued. “That will continue if our employers, state and federal healthcare agencies, and legislators do not take aggressive actions to make sure frontline workers have the proper PPE and facilities have the best protocols in place based on science for fighting COVID-19. Healthcare workers are human beings, and we should not be treated as disposable.”