Lack of Ebola Protection, Health Care Issues Force Brief Nurses’ Strike

Can you imagine a hospital emergency room that lacks enough saline solution, a common and vital supply?  Jowita Lyn can – because her emergency room at Washington’s Providence Hospital has that problem every day.


And it’s a lack of such basic supplies, along with high nurse-to-patient ratios and hospitals’ lack of protection for nurses and doctors exposed to the dangerous Ebola virus, that sent Lyn and thousands of other registered nurses, all members of National Nurses United (NNU), out on strike in mid-November.


Saline solution is a basic emergency room requirement.  Nurses use it to flush out wounds, to increase liquid volume in nutrition bags for a dehydrated patient, and to wash out a patient’s eyes when a hazardous substance gets in, among other functions.


But D.C.’s Providence Hospital, one of many facilities owned by Ascension Health Care, the nation’s largest Catholic hospital chain, doesn’t have enough saline solution for its ER, Lyn told interviewers on November 12, the D.C. strike’s day.


“We don’t have patient supplies like that on a daily basis, and we don’t have hazmat suits, either,” for Ebola protection, she said.  “We don’t have appropriate syringes, needles or proper gear to go into an isolation room.  And we’re short of saline solution every night.


“So if we have a patient with Ebola coming in, that puts other patients and the staff at risk.  And none of us have been trained to handle Ebola epidemics, either.”


Lyn was one of 400 unionized RNs who conducted the strike at Providence.  They took their cause to the White House, too, demanding the Obama administration order hospitals to protect their workers.  “We know from years of experience these hospitals will meet the cheapest standards, not the most effective precautions,” unless they’re ordered to undertake those, NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro said before the nationwide walkouts.


The strike lasted two days for the 20,000 nurses at 66 Kaiser Permanente hospitals in California.  Other walkouts occurred in the Twin Cities, Chicago, Kansas City, Boston,  St. Louis, Augusta, Ga., Houston, Durham, N.C., Miami and St. Petersburg, Fla.,  Las Vegas, Lansing, Mich., Massillon, Ohio and Bar Harbor, Maine.


In the walkouts, lack of personal protective equipment – hazmat suits and effective respirators — and lack of training on handling Ebola patients was a key issue, DeMoro said.


Lyn said Providence Hospital officials have turned a deaf ear to RNs’ complaints there about the short-staffing in the ER, the lack of training, the shortage of supplies and failure to protect nurses and doctors.


Providence refuses to spend money to cure those ills, Lyn adds, even though its parent chain, Ascension, legally considered a non-profit organization, earned $1.8 billion last year on revenues of $19 billion.  DeMoro says nurses face similar hospital profit priorities elsewhere.


“Nurses, who have been willing to stand by the patients whether it’s the flu, whether it’s Ebola, whether it’s cancer, are now being asked to put themselves in harm’s way unprotected, unguarded,” DeMoro told a press conference announcing the RNs’ decision to strike.


“Every RN is one patient away from being exposed to Ebola. The message nurses are being given across the nation is that they are expendable. You don’t ask the nurses to put their lives on the line and then not protect them.”


The Kaiser RNs raised the same issues that D.C.’s Lyn did: Cuts in hospital services, restrictions on admitting patients for hospital care, early discharge of patients who still need hospitalization –- and lack of supplies, too. Kaiser RN Katy Roemer said the week before that nurses there “are not seeing the resources we need on a daily basis to provide safe care.  We are going out on strike about patient safety issues.”


Hospital managements’ response has been, in many cases, to turn a deaf ear.  The D.C. nurses staged an earlier walkout when Providence management, rather than adding supplies to the ER, announced plans to expand it.


Other unions have also spoken up about the Ebola hazard.  AFT, which also represents tens of thousands of nurses, launched a confidential hotline to let workers report danger from Ebola and other hazards.  And while union President Randi Weingarten praised several AFT-represented hospitals for providing protective equipment, she noted others have not.  The union also bought national ads to pressure hospitals to protect nurses.


“With OSHA mandating Ebola preparedness plans at every health facility, we wanted to create a resource for nurses and health professionals to turn to if their facility is not providing what is necessary to protect them and their communities,” Weingarten explained.


In the Twin Cities, a coalition of airport workers raised questions about being protected against Ebola.  A Service Employees-sponsored poll of 1,160 airport workers nationwide showed 69 percent did not receive training on new federally recommended Ebola prevention measures.  More than half also received no basic health and safety information or protective gear from their employers, the poll added.


“There has been no change in the protection we see as cabin cleaners,” Asmare Meshesha, an AirServ Cabin Cleaner at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, told the union.  “We are as vulnerable to blood-borne illness as when my co-workers and I first complained to our managers more than a year ago.”