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May 21, 2020

Health systems failing to protect nurses amid COVID-19 crisis, union claims

Many reusing masks, lacking gowns, survey shows

Prevention Coronavirus
national nurses united.png Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

A survey conducted by National Nurses United indicates that health systems were not prepared to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, placing nurses at risk of infection.

A lack of personal protective equipment and other dangerous workplace conditions left thousands of nurses unprotected as they treated COVID-19 patients, a survey of 23,000 nurses suggests. 

The survey was conducted by National Nurses United, the largest union and professional organization of registered nurses in the United States. It has more than 150,000 members. 

The most widespread issue was a lack of personal protective equipment. About 87% of respondents said they were forced to reuse a single-use respirator or mask while tending to a patient with the coronavirus. Another 72% reported that their skin or clothing was exposed while providing care.

Only 16% of nurses indicated they had been tested for COVID-19.

The survey's findings "show the impact of health care employers' and governments' failures and disregard for nurses' lives," National Nurses United wrote in the survey's introduction. 

Many nurses have had to use decontaminated respirators, a practice the union claims has not been confirmed as safe, the survey showed. Others have been exposed to a COVID-19 patient while lacking appropriate PPE and then returned to work within 14 days. 

"The richest country in the world will call nurses heroes without even bothering to invest in mass producing N95 respirators and other equipment to keep nurses alive," NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo said in a statement. "Nurses signed up to care for their patients. They did not sign up to die needlessly on the front lines of a pandemic."

Another 33% said their employers required them to use their own sick leave, vacation or paid time off if they tested positive for COVID-19 or were forced to self-quarantine after being exposed. 

"If a nurse gets COVID-19, it should be presumed to be work-related and should be covered by workers’ compensation," the organization wrote. "States should pass bills ensuring that nurses are protected with presumptive eligibility for COVID-19."

The survey included responses submitted by nurses in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and four U.S. territories prior to May 12. 

National Nurses United is conducting a new survey seeking to identify health and safety threats caused by workplace neglect amid the coronavirus pandemic. Medical providers can fill out the new survey here.

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