‘Mass confusion:’ Nurses union says health officials are unprepared for coronavirus

The nurses held a candlelight vigil Wednesday at Stroger Hospital to mourn the victims of the coronavirus and urge hospital management “to step up their efforts to protect the staff and patients.”

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Members of National Nurses United rally last year in support of Medicare for All.

Provided photo/Falguni Dave

As coronavirus cases in Illinois continue to rise, nurses in Chicago are criticizing how hospitals are responding and calling for increased protections and guidance on how to handle the spread of the deadly pandemic.

Members of the country’s largest nurses union, National Nurses United, held a candlelight vigil Wednesday night outside Stroger Hospital in the Illinois Medical District to mourn the victims of COVID-19 and urge hospital management “to step up their efforts to protect the staff and patients,” according to Falguni Dave, a charge nurse at the hospital and member of the affiliated California Nurses Association.

The local demonstration led by nurses from Stroger and University of Chicago Medical Center was part of a national day of action led by National Nurses United, which boasts 150,000 members nationwide.

Dave blamed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for not doing enough to implement a coordinated response to the outbreak and said that shortfall has resulted in “mass confusion” across the country, including at Stroger.

“We’re all confused as to what we need to do if we get a suspected case of coronavirus here at the hospital,” Dave told the Sun-Times.

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Stroger nurse Falguni Dave, a member of the California Nurses Association union

Provided photo/Falguni Dave

Deb Song — spokeswoman for Cook County Health, which operates Stroger — rebuffed those claims and said that officials are taking the nurses’ concerns “very seriously” and prioritizing the safety of staff and patients. Stroger hasn’t treated anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Our staff has direct access to our infection control team and that department has trained and made themselves completely available to every department at Cook County Health from the clinical staff all the way down to environmental services,” said Song, who noted that staffers who come into contact with infected individuals have also been instructed on donning personal protection equipment.

In addition to training 1,500 staff members in the Cook County Health system and providing opportunities for continuing education on coronavirus, Song said, county officials are also offering guidance and training to other hospitals.

But Dave said the system that's currently in place would send potential coronavirus patients through the emergency room at Stroger and ultimately into the general population. That means those individuals could spread the disease to staff members, visitors and other patients they share a room with, she said.

“There’s no way of tracking any of these patients,” added Dave. “There’s no way of testing them. No swabs are being done.”

Song said that claim “doesn’t make sense at all,” noting that protocol actually requires individuals showing signs and symptoms to be “isolated immediately” in a special, negative-pressure room and treated by staffers required to wear the protective suits and special masks.

However, Dave isn’t the only one raising alarms.

A survey released last week by National Nurses United found that only 29% of responding nurses said there was a plan in place to isolate patients with a possible infection, while 23% said they didn’t know whether a plan was in place. On top of that, only 44% of responding union members reported that employers provided information about the virus and how to recognize and respond to possible infections.

But another group that represents nurses, the Illinois Nurses Association, while blasting the federal government, said the response from state and local authorities has been adequate.

“INA’s nurses feel there have been efforts by their facilities to prepare them to address the COVID-19 risk,” the group said in a statement Thursday.“Hospitals have conducted additional training and health care workers, including clinic and hospital RNs and LPNs, are working hard to address this public health crisis.Our nurses are working in virtually all health care settings, from screening at airports to emergency rooms and ICUs and are on the front line of the containment issues.”

During Wednesday’s vigil, Dave and other union members urged hospitals to streamline the assessment and care of people who may have contracted COVID-19.

The demonstration comes after National Nurses United, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, claimed on Tuesday that things are only getting worse after the CDC weakened a series of protections that affect frontline health care workers. That included scaling back a requirement for those workers to use special respirators that filter out 95% of airborne particles.

The CDC explained that “the supply chain of respirators cannot meet demand” amid the coronavirus crisis and that surgical masks serve as “an acceptable alternative.” An agency spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on the new guidance.

Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, slammed the move.

“If nurses and health care workers aren’t protected, that means patients and the public are not protected,” Castillo said in a statement. “This is a majorpublic health crisis of unknown proportions.

“Now is not the time to be weakening our standards and protections, or cutting corners. Now is the time we should be stepping up our efforts.”

The Illinois Nurses Association agreed with the criticism in its statement Thursday, saying they “are angry at the gross incompetence of the federal government’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of available face masks and, shields, as well as shortages of up to one thousand other items on the Strategic National Stockpile, reveal the federal government’s poor planning and mishandling of this crisis.”

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