March 18, 2020

Union nurses are on the front lines keeping patients and members safe and informed

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
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Caption: Hospital staff are assessing different areas of the hospital to be converted into beds for coronavirus patients, said nurse Nancy Barth-Miller, chapter president for the Federation of Nurses/UFT; nurses have been assessed for their specific skillset so they can be dispatched where most needed. (In the above file photo from 2017, Barth-Miller advocates for health care legislation at the Capitol.) Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

A depletion of masks, and finding enough beds to isolate those with coronavirus has hospital nurses with the Federation of Nurses/UFT working stridently to care for patients and be sure they are protected as well.

“We’re in a warlike situation, attempting to contain a dangerous disease,” said Anne Goldman, who oversees nurses as UFT vice president for non-Department of Education members.

Goldman, who chairs NYSUT’s Health Care Professionals Council and serves on the union’s Board of Directors, is in communication daily with union, nursing and hospital professionals. On a call yesterday, she learned that Connecticut health care professionals discovered the masks they had requested from the nation’s stockpile of emergency masks were too deteriorated to use. They had been stored too long and not periodically replaced. She said in the state of Washington, officials are researching how to make masks. In New York, construction workers are being asked to donate masks to health care providers, Goldman said.

“Our concern is to keep everyone safe. We want that to be our first priority. As there becomes an increase in the volume (of coronavirus cases) we want people to be supplied with equipment,” Goldman said. “If we don’t contain it, it becomes explosive.”

Union leaders are working to allay anxiety by checking in daily nurses, posting updated information, and reminding health care workers about best practices and using personal protective equipment.

Howard Sandau, ER nurse at the 450-bed NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, has been working 12-hour shifts on certain days and on others, serving as a UFT representative to bring updated information to staff. Together with UFT colleagues he is visiting nurses on each unit, staffing phones and providing additional education. Nurses are reminded of the UFT member assistance program for emotional support.

“Our whole team has been deployed,” Sandau said. “It’s exhausting. People are afraid. The public is afraid. The nurses are afraid. They appreciate seeing us in the building.”

At the hospital, nurses working with coronavirus patients, or those being assessed for it, have to “gown up head to toe,” including wearing the N95 respirator mask, which is not comfortable and can make it difficult to breathe, he said.

Guidelines for Health Care Professionals

The American Federation of Teachers has issued specific guidelines for the many health care professionals who work in hospital, school or home settings. Recommendations stress that “staff engaged in screening, triaging or caring for patients should don gowns, nitrile gloves, an N95 respirator or stronger respirator and face shield. This includes non-clinical staff, such as environmental services or food services staff who clean up after patients.”

“They have enough (masks) for now, but we are rationing,” said Sandau, a member of NYSUT’s HCPC. Udnder a new hospital directive, octors and nurses with beards have to remove the facial hair he said, otherwise the masks do not fit properly.

“They gave a doctor scissors and made him cut off his beard before he could get into a room,” Sandau said.

The hospital has built double doors where nurses treating patients who have the virus or are being assessed for the virus can don gowns, and then change out of contaminated scrubs before going home, reducing the risk of carrying the virus home to their families.

Sections of units are being partitioned off for airborne isolation areas.

At Staten Island University Hospital South, “We’re doing best practices as supplies allow. We have a procedural mask to wear all day, and if a patient is positive or being ruled out for coronavirus, we wear the N95 mask all day, plus the procedural mask,” said nurse Nancy Barth-Miller, chapter president for the Federation of Nurses/UFT. Previously, an N95 mask would be changed out between patients, she said. Now it is stored in a brown paper bag between patients.

Barth-Miller is making sure updated news and memos are posted daily to nursing staff on a closed blog. Traveling nurses and flex nurses have been hired to supplement the staff.

Meetings are held every few hours with leadership teams, she said. “The union’s responsibility is to quell hysteria. We do a lot of clarification of rumors.”

Many wheels are in motion as hospitals adjust to the growing pandemic. Staten Island is getting a drive-thru testing station at a beach parking lot. Hospital staff are assessing different areas of the hospital to be converted into beds for coronavirus patients, Barth-Miller said, and nurses have been assessed for their specific skillset so they can be dispatched where most needed.

A nursing home across the street from NYU Langone-Brooklyn that had been closed has just been converted into a respiratory assessment center, said Goldman, who toured the facility to ensure protocols are in place for patient care and for the FON/UFT nurses who work there.

Members who work for The New Jewish Home are required to take their temperature before each shift and call it in, and then take and report another temperature at the end of the day, Sandau noted.

Vacant office space, tents and ships are also being considered as places to house patients sickened by the coronavirus, Goldman said.

Veronica Foley, NYSUT health care and health and safety specialist, said NYSUT will be posting information about how its health care members can engage hospital administrators in dialogue about how prepared they are as the pandemic continues.

Vist nysut.org/coronavirus for more information.

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