Skip to main content

labor Nurses Said They Can't Protect Themselves And Hospitals Are Unprepared For Coronavirus, Survey Reports

"When nurses are not protected, the community is not protected," one California nurse said.

printer friendly  
Nurse in a surgical mask pushing a hospital bed from an ambulance.
A health care worker prepares to transport a patient on a stretcher into an ambulance at Life Care Center of Kirkland in Washington state., David Ryder / Getty Images

As the coronavirus spreads in the United States, nurses across the country have said they don't have enough resources to protect themselves from getting sick and hospitals are unprepared to treat patients who are infected, according to a new survey.

Of the more than 6,500 nurses who responded to the survey conducted by the union National Nurses United, only 30% reported that their employer has sufficient personal protective equipment on hand to protect staff if they see a surge in patients with suspected COVID-19 infections. Less than half of those who responded — 44% — said their employer has provided information about how to identify and respond to potential cases of the virus.

"When nurses are not protected, the community is not protected," said Cathy Kennedy, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente Roseville in California, where a patient infected with the virus died this week.

"We also hope that this death will compel hospital management to take seriously our calls for open communication, continuous training in infectious disease protocols and personal protective equipment, PPE, to keep us all safe at work and in turn our wider communities," she added.

COVID-19 was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan last December and has since spread to more than 80 countries, including the United States.

While health officials say the risk to the general public is still low — 209 cases have been confirmed in the US as of Thursday morning — the virus is spreading within communities and health care workers who have treated COVID-19 patients are among the infected.

Speaking during a press conference Thursday, nurses said there's a shocking lack of preparedness at hospitals, which puts nurses who are on the frontlines of providing care at particular risk.

Only 29% of the nurses who responded said that there was a plan in place at their workplace to isolate patients with possible coronavirus infections and just 19% reported that their employer has a policy to address employees with suspected or known exposure to the virus.

"The results of our national survey of more than 6,500 nurses is truly disturbing," said Jane Thomason, an industrial hygienist for the union. "They show that large percentages of the nation’s hospital are unprepared to safely handle COVID-19."

The union also criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for not being more proactive to fight the spread of the disease, demanding that the agency direct health care facilities to put in place measures for screening and isolating patients that show symptoms of respiratory illness.

"The CDC has been behind the ball at almost every step of the way," Thomason said.

Now, Thomason said the CDC has been discussing weakening their guidance for health care workers, including recommending surgical masks — which public health experts say don't protect against infection — instead of respirators for nurses providing care to patients with COVID-19.

"We have ample scientific evidence that this is the wrong step to take," she said, citing a report that surgical masks did not protect nurses from SARS, another respiratory coronavirus that spread worldwide in 2002.

"Now is the time to use every possible tool available to guarantee the highest level of protection … to prevent the spread of infection, to protect health care workers, and to preserve our capacity to respond to a potentially widespread outbreak," Thomason said.

A spokesperson for the CDC told BuzzFeed News in an email that there have been discussions "on the possibility of updating standard guidance if supply is limited nationwide or worldwide" but did not specify whether recommending surgical masks instead of N-95 respirators was part of those discussions.

Meanwhile, another nurse who is sick and in quarantine after treating a patient with COVID-19 at a hospital in Northern California said in an anonymous statement provided by the union that the CDC has not approved requests from her doctor and county health officials to test her for the virus.

"They said they would not test me because if I were wearing the recommended protective equipment, then I wouldn’t have the coronavirus," she said. "What kind of science-based answer is that?"

The nurse said she volunteered to care for a patient who tested positive because she had all the recommended protective gear and training to do so.

The last she heard from the CDC was that it needs an "identifier number" to initiate her testing and that it was prioritizing testing for people with more severe illness. Only so many samples can be tested each day, the nurse said she was told.

"I am a registered nurse, and I need to know if I am positive before going back to caring for patients," she said. "Delaying this test puts the whole community at risk."