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“No End in Sight”: 9 Months into Pandemic, Nurses Are Tired, Demoralized & Still Lack Adequate PPE

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As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its ninth month, a new report by National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the United States, finds hospitals are still failing to provide adequate PPE and are unprepared as the surge is expected to get worse during the flu season. Nurses also report mental health struggles related to the pandemic. The union estimates at least 2,000 frontline healthcare workers have died due to COVID-19, with nurses of color accounting for half of those deaths, even though they’re less than a quarter of the workforce. Jean Ross, president of National Nurses United, says the lack of preparedness is having a devastating toll on healthcare workers. “Hospitals still don’t have a plan in place for a surge — and we’re currently in a surge,” Ross says. “It’s the lack of response, the improper response, that has nurses and other healthcare workers really down.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its ninth month, a new report by National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the United States, finds hospitals are still failing to provide adequate PPE, personal protective equipment, and are unprepared as the surge is expected to get far worse during the flu season. Nurses also report mental health struggles related to the pandemic.

National Nurses United estimates at least 2,000 frontline healthcare workers have died due to COVID-19 — the number could be far higher. Nurses of color account for half of those deaths, even though they’re less than a quarter of the workforce.

This comes as North Dakota’s Republican Governor Doug Burgum has called on infected but asymptomatic health workers to keep treating COVID patients.

Meanwhile, in Texas, a state appeals court has blocked El Paso County’s shutdown of nonessential businesses that had been implemented to slow a massive outbreak, after it was challenged by Texas’ attorney general. After the ruling Friday, National Nurses United held a virtual news conference with a group of registered nurses in El Paso who spoke out against the ruling. This is Idali Cooper.

IDALI COOPER: In a community that is really — we are the majority, as Hispanic people, and we have been affected the most. … It is imperative to inform our governor or attorney general that their decisions have dire consequences for my community or for communities of color. … I’m just extremely exhausted emotionally, physically. I haven’t recovered. I have to go back to work tomorrow. I have not recovered. I feel I’ve been napping all week. And knowing that my patients are being intubated, it’s very demoralizing. And I just want the community to know that it’s very important for all of us, even though our governor and attorney general did not do the right decision for our community, that we do what’s right for our community regardless of what they say. Right now in the adult units, there’s not enough nurses for all the patients that are being taken — that need to be taken care of adequately.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s registered nurse Idali Cooper speaking in El Paso Friday, where prisoners are being paid $2 an hour to move the bodies of people who have died of COVID-19 to mobile morgues as the number of cases and deaths has completely overwhelmed local hospitals.

For more, we’re joined by Jean Ross, acute care registered nurse, president of National Nurses United. She’s in Bloomington, Minnesota.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Jean. Talk about what nurses are facing around the country right now, what your report found.

JEAN ROSS: What we found was, if we compare this report, as of October/November, to when we first started at the beginning of the pandemic, things have not gotten better, and in many cases they’ve gotten worse. Nurses still are not getting the PPE that we need. Many hospitals are still not cohorting, putting COVID-19 patients separate from other patients. Hospitals still don’t have a plan in place for a surge — and we’re currently in a surge. And nurses are reporting feeling more devastated, more sleepless — not hopeless. We keep our spirits up. But we do need to see some sort of improvement from our employers, from our government, that we are not seeing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what the federal government needs to do right now? When you say hospitals aren’t providing the PPE, how are they supposed to get them? How is it possible that nine months into this pandemic, that there are still not enough tests available, there are still not enough masks available and other protective gear, all over the country? What are you demanding of the Trump administration?

JEAN ROSS: Well, two main things would really help. One is to fully, fully institute the DPA, the Defense Production Act, that act that came with wartime where you can have manufacturing in this country gear up so that we have the amount of PPE that we need.

The other would be a temporary emergency OSHA standard that says, for infectious diseases for this period of time, hospitals, these employers, must give at least this minimum standard of PPE and make sure that there’s enough of it. So, right now we are being told different things by the employers. Sometimes they say, “Yes, we have plenty, but we have to keep them under lock and key in case there’s a surge.” Well, there is a surge, and they’re still insisting that many, if not most, nurses reuse equipment that really is supposed to be single-use.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the mental health of nurses across the country? I mean, the devastating fact that, nine months in, we’re now talking about some of the worst figures of the entire pandemic for deaths and infections, how do healthcare workers keep going?

JEAN ROSS: Well, basically, it’s our job. I mean, that’s what you’re prepared to do. But until this pandemic — and I would say not the pandemic, because we always knew this was at some point inevitable. But it’s the lack of response, the improper response, that has nurses and other healthcare workers really down. Most of our nurses report, even in their downtime that they get now, they’re not sleeping as well. They’re anxious. They didn’t use to be so anxious. And they’re anxious about not just passing it on to other people, to their families, to other patients, but the fact that they might not be able to keep going, because it is very devastating to see this amount of death every day, every shift, with what appears to be no end in sight.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about North Dakota Republican Governor Doug Burgum, who said that infected nurses and healthcare workers should still continue working if they’re asymptomatic.

JEAN ROSS: Yeah, that statement is just unconscionable. It’s so irresponsible. I understand where he gets it from, though. Re that, as in many other things, they look to the CDC, and, unfortunately, with requests from the hospital association, employers and others, they have continued to downgrade their guidelines and their recommendations. But this novel virus, we know one of the things that’s unique about it is that you can be completely asymptomatic and yet be a spreader, a very effective spreader. What sense does it make for a nurse to go into the hospital and try to take care people who are ill, albeit with the same disease — doesn’t matter — and spread it to others, including her family. So, it’s just — it’s irresponsible, and it’s something I never thought I would hear —

AMY GOODMAN: And let me —

JEAN ROSS: — from a government official.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about another study that you’ve put out that revealed hospitals may be charging as much as 18 times over their costs. Your response?

JEAN ROSS: Yes. Again, unconscionable, but that seems to be the way in this country. Up to 18 times. So, for example, if your true cost — it’s called the charge-to-cost ratio, or CCR — if your true cost for your service is $100, they are, in many cases, charging up to $1,800. And they do it because they can.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to go to South Dakota, where the COVID-19 death rate is among the worst in the world. Governor Kristi Noem, a close Trump ally, has said she would not enforce a mask mandate even if ordered by future President Joe Biden. South Dakota ER nurse Jodi Doering says some of her COVID-19 patients refuse to believe that COVID is real — her COVID patients. In a now-viral thread on Twitter, she wrote, “These people really think this isn’t going to happen to them. And then they stop yelling at you when they get intubated.” This is Doering speaking on CNN.

JODI DOERING: Their last dying words are “This can’t be happening. It’s not real.” And when they should be spending time FaceTiming their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred. And it just made me really sad the other night, and I just can’t believe that those are going to be their last thoughts and words.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is astounding. They are fighting with the nursing staff, saying, “Why are you wearing that protective gear? What I am dying of is not COVID-19.” And they only stop yelling when they’re intubated. That’s South Dakota. We had a story out of Provo, Utah, also so hard-hit, where people were trying to break into the local hospital, packed to the gills with COVID patients, saying they don’t believe that people are in there in ICUs with COVID.

JEAN ROSS: Yeah, I did hear Jodi say that, and I feel so bad for her and for other nurses. These are things we didn’t use to have to contend with. But that’s what happens when people are brainwashed. And what you hope for, when you know your patient is probably going to die, is the most peaceful death possible in their situation. That isn’t peaceful, and that’s got to be devastating — scary for that patient and devastating for the nurse and the family.

AMY GOODMAN: Final question, and we only have a few seconds: What are you demanding right now, as president of National Nurses United? The Biden transition is happening, whether or not Trump is helping with it. What do you demand happens? Because Trump is still there for two months. That is tens of thousands of people dying in this country.

JEAN ROSS: Well, what we’re asking is that President-elect Biden and Kamala Harris continue the good fight to try to get into that transitioning. We know they’re doing all the right things right now, putting together the proper people — for once, some sane, rational people who believe in science, the true experts — and listening to them. This is a step in the right direction. And continue to put those people in place, so that we push, again, for the PPE, the Defense Production Act, that OSHA standard. It can’t come soon enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Ross, we want to thank you for being with us, president of National Nurses United.

When we come back, we look at Central America, devastated by back-to-back climate change-fueled hurricanes just over the last few weeks. Stay with us.

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