Health care council calls on public to adhere to safety issues
Health care professionals from many fronts gave updates on the growing toll of the pandemic at the union’s Health Care Professionals Council.
“I’m witnessing a lot of nurses with PTSD from what we went through in the spring and what we’re about to go through again,” said Howard Sandau, a surgical ICU and ER nurse at NYU Langone, where medical teams were deluged with patients sick and dying from the first wave of COVID-19. “It’s really palpable.” Sandau is a special nurse representative to the United Federation of Teachers/Federation of Nurses.
Rosemarie Thompson, a UFT member and guidance counselor in the Bronx, said she is witnessing “a lot of depression, and a lot of suicidal thoughts” from students as they slog through months of the pandemic. It has uprooted school routines and family life as people have become sick, quarantine or social distance, or have lost jobs. Some students have lost parents or grandparents to the disease.
Kelly Caci, Newburgh TA member and school psychologist, said she is also seeing mental health issues with teachers dealing with student trauma.
“Helping people handle loss is upon the shoulders of people in many dimensions,” said Anne Goldman, RN, a UFT vice president, and chair of the NYSUT Health Care Professionals Council. “We are bruised and exhausted and now must continue our battle with this ferocious enemy. We need staff as we march forward, and our staffing is depleted. Again we must find the strength to succeed and maintain our own health, mentally and physically.
“We need the public to realize how important mitigation is with this disease. It affects all of us. We are dependent on each other to succeed.” Goldman urged members to continue to communicate how decisions made by individuals affect others.
“We have a duty to protect others,” said Veronica Foley, NYSUT health and safety specialist.
Hospital nurse Nancy Barth-Miller said from Dec. 1-9 there had been 40 reported deaths from COVID-19 on Staten Island. Currently, S.I. University South, where she works, is COVID-contained and open for regular patient treatment and surgery; and S.I. University North is a dedicated COVID facility. To meet a growing need, COVID patient care has been expanded to a vacant psychiatric center, now being called Staten Island University Hospital East.
During the pandemic, nutrition has also been sidelined in some cases, as an increasing number of families face food insecurity. Staying healthy is vital in the midst of a pandemic, especially for those people with underlying conditions, said UFT member and home care nurse Raquel Webb Geddes. Diabetes and obesity are two primary concerns.
Dental care is also suffering because of the pandemic, explained Sherry Kurtz, educational dental hygienist with the Monroe Community College Faculty Association. Dental offices were closed for months, and even though many are reopened, people worry about the close proximity of dental care. Paying is another concern. For many, dental insurance was tied to a job they no longer have.
The council is exploring hosting presentations and panels on many of these topics as it maps out plans for its spring Health Care Professionals Forum.
“We can say ‘I can’t do it anymore,’ or we can take the lead in how best to foster support for patients and students,” said Goldman. She explained to veteran and new members of the council that NYSUT is active in lobbying for health care laws — including improved nurse-patient staff ratios and more mental health professionals in schools. Had these safeguards been in place, Goldman said, “Our staff would’ve been appropriate instead of broken before the pandemic.”
School budget cuts are forcing even more depletion of school social workers and psychologists. “We are grateful to our union and seek continued support as we proceed at this critical time,” Goldman said.
As a teacher of social studies for 30 years, NYSUT Second Vice President Ron Gross said he looks to the history of how people pulled together during the Great Depression and the world wars for encouragement. Members of the health care council and the members they represent, Gross said, are heroes.