Nurses from the profession’s largest union in the United States have warned of dire stresses on the healthcare system as the country sees a new surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations.
In a news conference on Monday, members of the National Nurses United, which represents 170,000 registered nurses across the US, detailed harrowing accounts of hospital understaffing, a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and an inadequate response from local and federal authorities.
On Saturday, the US surpassed 12 million confirmed coronavirus cases. More than 247,000 people have died in the country after contracting COVID-19, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
Despite a lull in hospitalisations in the middle of the year, the numbers of patients currently hospitalised has more than doubled as the US enters its colder months. As of Friday, more than 83,000 patients in the US were hospitalised with COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Officials in some areas have warned hospitals could face stresses worse than they did during the first major outbreak earlier in the year. Data from the Health and Human Services Department released last week showed that 18 percent of hospitals across all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico report being “critically” short on staff. North Dakota is the worst hit, with 51 percent of hospitals reporting shortages. Seven other states are above the 30 percent mark.
“Nearly one year into this pandemic, our hospitals are still not prepared,” said Jean Ross, the president of the union and a registered nurse in Minnesota. She said a survey of nurses conducted by the organisation found that 80 percent of hospitals in the US have not done adequate planning for a surge in cases.
“Our government and healthcare employers have not implemented what is needed since the pandemic started,” she said. “We are still fighting for safe staffing and optimal PPE”, as well as proper “infection control” measures.
Marissa Lee, a labour and delivery nurse in Kissimmee, Florida, said most nurses at the hospital where she works, the Osceola Regional Medical Center, only receive optimal PPE that provides “airborne and droplet precaution” when they are working directly with patients who are known to be infected with COVID-19. Otherwise, she said, they receive less protective surgical masks.
“We need PPE … PPE is the key word to everything we’re speaking about here,” said Lee, who added that staffing levels have become “unsafe” with personnel regularly shifted to departments outside of their expertise. The hospital administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room nurse in Chicago, Illinois, which has seen record daily cases this month, described PPE shortages at the public John H Stroger Jr Hospital of Cook County. She also described a shortage of staff amid an influx of patients forced to use the emergency room for primary care after losing their employer-provided insurance amid the pandemic.
She added the hospital has not been properly separating infected individuals from the population.
“Last last week, I reached a point where I was numb. I didn’t feel tired. I didn’t feel happy. I didn’t feel angry,” she said. “I didn’t feel frustrated and I didn’t feel sad. I literally felt nothing. And that is a scary place for nurses to be.”
Vargas called for more transparency from both hospital administrations and the government, while urging Americans to take precautions to prevent the further spread of the virus.
A spokeswoman for Cook County Health, Deborah Song, in a statement to Al Jazeera, said the management has “prioritised the health and safety of our workers and our patients”, including working to “secure sufficient and optimal personal protective equipment, educate staff and build surge plans, including staffing at all levels”.
However, she acknowledged hospital staffing has been a “challenge across the country” as surges occur in different areas at different times.
“We do not have the resources to pay the exorbitant rates or bonuses that other hospitals can afford or to contract with agencies to keep staff in waiting until they are needed,” she said. “As such, should staffing be challenged beyond what we can afford, we will likely be faced with further reducing services to shift staff to areas of need. This is the unfortunate reality of this pandemic.”
Both nurses and hospital administrations have stressed the need for more precautions to bring the numbers of patients down and reduce stresses on the healthcare system.
US health officials have warned against travelling and gathering for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, but millions of Americans have not heeded that call. The Transportation Security Administration said that more than three million people were screened at airports on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the highest traffic since March.
“I know the holidays season is upon us. Are you willing to give up one holiday season for 10 more?” said Vargas. “Think of everything you want to accomplish in your life, the places you want to go, the things you want to do, the people you want to spend time with? Are you willing to give all that up?”
Christina Hanson, a nurse in Marquette, Michigan, a state that has also seen record case numbers this month, called on state officials across the country, many of whom have been resistant to imposing restrictions or mandates for masks in public, to “meet us where we are”.
She thanked the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, who has imposed restrictions aimed at limiting the virus while weathering derision from President Donald Trump, whose administration has been wary of statewide or national mandates.
“We shoulder a level of concern and anxiety that we will contract this virus ourselves and spread it to our loved ones,” Hanson said. “Nurses are tough, but a strong and dedicated as our nurses are. What we are doing is not sustainable. We see the cases climbing across the country and are anxious for what’s to come. We need change.”