Health workers are on the front lines of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and that doesn’t just mean they’re already at high risk for contracting the illness. They’re also at the mercy of their employers, whose cost-cutting measures could harm staff and patients alike. On March 19, the Intercept reported that some geriatricians and other nursing-home workers have been forced to continue working, though they’d been exposed to COVID-19 and had not received a test. In Chicago, an infectious disease nurse sued Northwestern Memorial Hospital for firing her after she’d warned that the masks they’d provided to staff were inadequate. The nurse, Lauri Mazurkiewicz, had warned colleagues by email that N95 respirators were more effective than the masks the hospital had ordered them to wear.
That story sounds familiar to Jane, a nurse at a prestigious, privately owned hospital in Ohio. (We’ve changed her name to protect her identity.) A member of the American Federation of Teachers, which is the nation’s second-largest nurses union, Jane fell ill not long after she returned from an early March trip to Ireland with her fiancé. Though Ireland had no known cases of COVID-19 when Jane arrived, that had changed by the time of her departure. When she reported her symptoms to her workplace and informed them that she’d been out of the country, the hospital told her to come in anyway — and wear a mask. Jane spoke to Intelligencer by phone this week. This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
Lay out the timeline of events for me here.
When we deplaned at JFK we got a card that said right at the top, “Health Alert: Coronavirus Disease 2019. You have traveled to a country with an outbreak of COVID-19 and are at a higher risk. Please stay home. Stay home for the next 14 days and monitor your health. Take your temperature with a thermometer two times a day and watch for symptoms. If you’re sick and have symptoms, call ahead before going to your doctor’s office or emergency room.” So I gave this all to employee health [Ed. note: “Employee health” refers to a point person who handles immunizations, TB testing, and other essential needs for nursing staff]. I sent them a picture of the card. The airline actually sent me a link to the CDC website that said pretty much the exact same thing, listed all the countries. So I forwarded that to my employee health as well. And my employee health nurse said that the hospital where I work wasn’t following CDC recommendations for travelers, and that I would be expected to report to work and to wear a mask.
So I went to work. When I got there, I had already taken a gram of Tylenol and my temperature was 99.9. My doctor was at the hospital, and he decided to admit me directly to the hospital for COVID-19 testing, because employee health would not offer me a test before returning to work. I could have been putting my patients’ lives at risk because they didn’t want to test me.
After I received the test at the hospital, my doctor told me to stay home. I was off work for four days waiting for the results. Came back yesterday. They were negative, thank God. But now they say they won’t pay me because the test is negative and I’ll have to use my vacation time.
Were you surprised at the way they handled this?
Most of us have had to come to work sick. But, you know, coming to work with a cold, taking proper precautions when you’re feeling under the weather, is one thing. Having to work and putting a vulnerable population at risk of life-threatening harm is different.
Is your hospital understaffed?
No, we’re not. We’ve been understaffed maybe the last six months, but we are not generally understaffed now. When I was admitted, the nurse that was taking care of me got to go home early because she was not necessary for staffing requirements. So not only had I left to be admitted to the hospital, they were also sending other nurses home because they weren’t needed that day.
What justification did they give you for not following CDC guidelines here?
They said they had their own guidelines.
And did they explain to you what those guidelines were?
That I was expected to work wearing the mask.
Yep. I did reach out to my labor union. But really, what became of this is that I paid a bunch of money to go to the hospital to have a test because they refused to do that. And now I have to pay myself for the time off. I was just trying to protect a very vulnerable population. I went into work on Friday and I actually saw two patients that were presumably COVID positive. One of them was an 86-year-old man and one was a 39-year-old woman. And, you know, I just felt very uneasy. I didn’t even go to see the other patient I’d been assigned because they weren’t in isolation. And I felt like, what if I do have something and I could give it to this person?
Do you know of any other nurses who’ve experienced something similar at your workplace?
Well, we have a group message, and now the personal protective equipment shortage has become quite an issue affecting us too. We use paper masks. We’re not wearing N95 respirators. They said that’s come down not because of good science, but because there’s such a shortage of equipment.
What has this been like for you emotionally?
I’m still upset. I’m so very upset. I just can’t imagine working in a system where my health is so disregarded, you know, that they’re laughing off the fact that we don’t have the right equipment, that they’re telling me that they don’t care that I’m not infected. They put not only their patients’ lives at risk, but what about my co-workers? I work with several people who are on cancer medications or have autoimmune diseases and take immunosuppressive drugs. I myself have health conditions.
Experts generally believe the pandemic could go on for weeks or even months. Are you worried about your hospital’s long-term approach to the crisis?
You know, I’ve worked for them for nearly ten years. I’m part of the labor infrastructure at my hospital. And if it wasn’t a monetary issue, I wouldn’t work here.
You feel they’re putting the public’s health at risk?
I feel like they’re putting everyone’s health at risk. The workers’ health, the community’s health in general by not allowing things to work the way they should. I feel like all the safeguards have failed.