‘I want to be protected’: Nurses still worried about dangerous work conditions, COVID mutations

By: - March 22, 2021 7:00 am

Nurses protesting lack of protective equipment. Credit: National Nurses United

COVID-19 devastated the nation last year and put a strain on health care systems across the country, particularly at hospitals where doctors and nurses worked around the clock to treat patients with a highly contagious virus.

Marissa Lee, a registered nurse in Florida, recalls that time during the pandemic, when she and other colleagues faced dire conditions, staff shortages and lack of personal protective equipment.

Lee works at Osceola Regional Medical Center in Kissimmee and is a member of the National Nurses United, a union representing registered nurses nationwide.

NNU has praised the Biden administration’s national plan to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines and testing, protect health care workers with more medical supplies and push states to continue safety protocols.

But more needs to be done for many health care workers who feel their voices have been ignored when addressing ongoing issues in the workplace, Lee said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

“It’s been a year of COVID and very little has improved for not only us nurses but for our patients…our previous administration has failed us,” Lee said.

‘I want to be protected’

Many nurses and health care workers battling the coronavirus on the front line continue to fight for increased staffing and transparency related to data on health care worker deaths and infections.

The N95 respirator is a “respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles.” Credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“I want to be protected. I am not going to stop doing my job,” Lee said. “We need to do more, we need PPE – more N95 masks,” said Lee, noting extreme staffing shortages at her hospital in Kissimmee.

And COVID-19 testing among health care workers at the hospital is not a requirement, according to Lee, who said she had sought testing on her own. Osceola Regional Medical Center has not responded to a request for comment from the Florida Phoenix.

In an updated report, titled “Sins of Omission,” the union alleges that health care employers are putting its workers and patients at risk by refusing to disclose data on COVID-19 deaths and infections among workers.

That report includes deaths among registered nurses in Florida, with the NNU documenting 17 cases as of Feb. 11.

And with new, more contagious COVID-19 variants spreading nationwide, the group is raising concerns about health care settings potentially becoming hot spots for transmission of the variants.

“To this day we are not told if we’ve been exposed to COVID,” Lee said. “How many people must die before they wake up. We should have been further along.”

In total, the union estimates that at least 329 registered nurses in the United States have died of COVID-19 and related complications while working in health care settings.

Poll shows many health care workers uncertain about vaccines

Health care workers were among priority groups for COVID-19 vaccines but many were unconvinced of its effectiveness and opted out for shots, according to a joint poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A clinical coordinator measures the exact dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before it is administered; Dec. 14, 2020. Credit: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post (pool)

However, “nurses are not vaccine hesitant,” according to Lee, who said she had received a COVID-19 vaccine already.

“Nurses understand the importance of vaccination in any comprehensive infection control plan,” Lee added.

According to The Washington Post, about half of health care workers (52 percent) “said they had received at least their first vaccine dose at the time they were surveyed.” The poll was conducted Feb. 11 through March 7.

“More than 1 in 3 said they are not confident vaccines were sufficiently tested for safety and effectiveness,” The Washington Post wrote.

The union is also tracking infection rates among health care workers, and data show 791,158 infections of health care workers across the country, as of Feb. 11, 2021. Florida is ranked among the top 10 states with the most COVID-19 infections for that group – 31,133.

Other states with high infections among health care employees include California, 90,744; Ohio, 53,934 and Illinois, 43,892.

COVID-19 variants remain a threat 

Meanwhile, public health experts want people to remain vigilant in adhering to safety measures such as wearing masks because of the more infectious COVID-19 variants quickly spreading across the nation.

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19.
Meanwhile, new COVID mutations called variants are now spreading across the U.S. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Florida has more than 1,000 cases caused by variants, more than any other state in the nation, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has been tracking at least three of the key variants proliferating across the country. Of concern is that variants could overwhelm the health care system with hospitalizations, leading to more deaths.

Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has opened up businesses, schools and other venues, and has refused to initiate a statewide mask mandate, irking Democrats and other critics who say the governor has mishandled the COVID crisis.

Elsewhere, nurses were appalled by Texas Governor Greg Abbott for his decision to fully open his state and remove safety measures such as lifting the face mask mandate, according to a press release.

Abbott’s executive order that lifted restrictions “directly contradicts the advice of public health experts across the country,” Jean Ross, a registered nurse, said in a written statement this month.

“It is especially dangerous to reduce safety measures with the escalating risk of the spread of new variants that could lead to further surges, and the uncertainty of whether the vaccines will protect against them,” said Ross, who is also a NNU president.

Even as more Americans are receiving doses of COVID-19 vaccines, many health experts say it is too early to ease restrictions, according to an NNU letter sent to federal officials in December 2020.

“A COVID-19 vaccine should never replace infection control measures, safe workplaces, rigorous testing and contact tracing for patients, nurses, and other health care workers,” NNU wrote.

“Adopting an integrated, layered approach to COVID-19 prevention, including physical distancing measures, wearing face coverings, testing and contact tracing, in addition to a vaccine, remains the only way to limit the spread of the virus and protect the public.”

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.