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One Mask for Five 12-Hour Shifts: Harlem Hospital Nurses Demand Better Protection Amid Pandemic

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As New York state’s death toll from coronavirus passes 4,000, nurses and medical workers on the frontlines in New York City are protesting for better protections. We go to a demonstration outside Harlem Hospital to speak with Sarah Dowd, a registered nurse who works in its medical/surgical unit and has been treating COVID-19-positive patients. She is a member of the New York State Nurses Association union. “This is not a time for people to be sitting on the sidelines,” Dowd says. “We need to make big demands of the system.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic here in the United States, New York state, where the death toll has passed 4,000. In New York City, the hospitals are overflowing. Medical workers have reported using trash bags as protective gear. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday the city has enough medical supplies to last until Tuesday or Wednesday. He asked any available healthcare workers to join the fight against the pandemic.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: Please, we need your help. We need supplies. We need medical personnel to come forward to volunteer. We will compensate them, but we need them to come forward and give us their time and energy where it’s needed most.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor de Blasio’s plea comes as nurses and medical workers already on the frontlines in New York City have been protesting to demand better protections as they treat a growing wave of COVID-19 patients. Last week, medical workers demonstrated outside Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx and Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan to protest the lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Today, frontline medical workers at Harlem Hospital are preparing a protest of their own that will begin at 8:30 a.m. We’re going outside the hospital now to speak with Sarah Dowd, registered nurse who works in a medical/surgical, or “med/surg,” unit at Harlem Hospital. She’s been treating positive patients there. Sarah Dowd is part of the New York State Nurses Association.

Sarah, welcome to Democracy Now! As we speak to you, you’re just outside Harlem Hospital, where the protest is about to begin. Why did you help organize this protest?

SARAH DOWD: I helped start this because we have some very concrete needs that are not being met right now as far as taking care of patients and ensuring that workers are not infected. We have a lot of issues with getting the gear that we need to protect ourselves. We also have issues with getting the equipment we need to properly take care of the patients. And we’re out here today not just to draw awareness to that, but we have some very concrete demands that we would like to have met by the public healthcare system here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, a contingent of teachers with the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators from the United Federation of Teachers is coming to show their support in cars?

SARAH DOWD: That’s correct. We’re very happy for the show of solidarity from the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators. They’re a grassroots movement within the United Federation of Teachers. And they reached out to us, saying, “How can we support you?” You know, they’re also going through it quite a bit with the switch to online learning. They’re also facing budget cuts in the most recent budget proposed by Cuomo, as are we. And so, they just reached out to say, “How can we show solidarity?” And they’re going to be circling the hospital in their cars.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about what you’re seeing inside? How are you protecting yourself? How are other nurses, doctors? I mean, the sanitation staff in these emergency rooms are exposed to so much. And at the same time, you have President Trump, day after day at his White House briefings, saying New York has enough, and maybe they’re hoarding or selling the materials out the back.

SARAH DOWD: And that’s just a ridiculous comment to make. I mean, we have enough by their standards, but those are not the standards of healthcare professionals. Those are not the standards of people that have been working with patients with infectious diseases. They’re standards that are imposed because of this panic about resources. And we’re hearing that there are more N95s. We’re demanding that we have a better policy for N95s. Right now it’s kind of come to us using one for five shifts, which is up to 60 hours of work with the same mask. Those haven’t been proven to be effective for that length of time, and it’s not a risk that we’re willing to take.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. Sarah, can you repeat: How long are you expected to wear the same mask?

SARAH DOWD: We’re expected to use the same mask for five 12-hour shifts.

AMY GOODMAN: Five 12-hour shifts. That’s not seeing five patients; that’s 60 hours of work.

SARAH DOWD: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: The same single mask?

SARAH DOWD: That’s correct. So we’re out here to demand a change to that policy. There’s other local hospitals that have changed that policy. We’re also looking to have the full 14 days for sick healthcare workers. A lot of us are being told to come back to work while we’re still having symptoms. And the risk to the rest of the staff and to the patients, not to mention the workers who are trying to work through those symptoms, is too high.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the squad. Actually, tomorrow on Democracy Now!, we’ll be interviewing Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is part of another Squad of women in Congress. But I wanted to talk about your squad, the New York City nurses who you call the “radical nurse squad.” We’ve interviewed Kelley Cabrera at Jacobi, Tre Kwon at Mount Sinai — she was just outside protesting on Friday. There’s you, Sarah Dowd, standing outside Harlem Hospital now, and Lillian Udell at Lincoln Hospital. Talk about how you’re organizing, the four of you, with so many others. And you’re all women.

SARAH DOWD: Yes, we’re — I mean, the relationship that we have with each other has really helped to strengthen us, particularly now. You know, we’ve always been a group of nurses that believe in our co-workers, in rank-and-file nurses, in their ability to run the healthcare system and our ability to run our union effectively from the ground up, not from the top down. We believe both the union and the healthcare system should work that way. And particularly now has been a time where we can look to each other for ideas, for support. Tre and Kelley are out here now with me. And the solidarity from all of them has been incredible and given me so much strength.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah, can you talk about your access to tests, both patients and also you as nurses? If you have COVID symptoms, we are now continually learning from the chief doctors of this country that the majority of people who come down with COVID are transmitted the disease by an asymptomatic person. So what happens when you actually start to show symptoms?

SARAH DOWD: So, by the time you’re showing symptoms, it’s late. You’ve already potentially passed it. You know, I’m not out here to be an infectious diseases expert, but the way that it works with a lot of viruses is that by the time you’re showing symptoms, you’ve already potentially transmitted it. And then there’s people that, of course, can transmit it without showing any symptoms at all. And that’s a particular concern in the healthcare setting where workers are not being tested, because we don’t know if we have it, and we’re potentially exposing patients. And so, it’s an absolutely horrifying thing to have in the back of your head that you might be out here trying to help heal people and in fact be doing the exact opposite. And it’s not a feeling that a lot of us can readily live with. And so, we’re glad that they’re rolling out testing. It’s late. It’s good they’re finally doing it, but it also needs to be much more widespread, including the testing of asymptomatic people on a routine basis, particularly if they’re working in a direct care setting.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the deaths of patients on your watch? Over and over, people are dying, and dying alone, so your job as a nurse goes so far beyond what you normally do, with no families allowed in, and yet at the same time fearful that you could contract the disease.

SARAH DOWD: Yes, I mean, it’s kind of dancing a line, and we’re all kind of trying to dance it the best way we know how. We want to support our patients. We don’t want our patients to die alone. We do feel a risk going in the room and being with them without the appropriate gear. I’ve had patients that, you know, are close to death and pass away, and kind of you can take sort of the briefest moments to hold their hand and try to just convey the message that I’m here for you, you’re not alone. But, you know, at the end of the day, like, if we had adequate staff, it would feel much less like we’re put in a position where we have to choose between sharing those moments with our patients and caring for patients we know are much more likely to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: How long do you have to go home if you show COVID symptoms?

SARAH DOWD: It’s seven days and then 72 hours without a fever.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you get a test afterwards?

SARAH DOWD: As of now, we are being tested, for symptomatic employees. Asymptomatic employees are going to be tested starting April 8th.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, can you, for a national audience, even for people in New York City, Health and Hospitals Corporation, understand the difference between city hospitals and the private hospitals, and is there different treatment within? You’re standing outside of Harlem Hospital, which is a city hospital.

SARAH DOWD: Yes. Yeah, so there —

AMY GOODMAN: So often understaffed, undersupported. And then if you could go to the issue of — I mean, the issue of problems even before COVID and the coronavirus?

SARAH DOWD: Right. So, I do work at a public hospital within the Health and Hospitals Corporation system. There’s a private sector system that comprises other institutions. And there have always been funding disparities. You know, we rely on public funding, that has been cut continuously over the past several decades. We’re looking at some of those cuts now with the introduction of the Medicaid cuts in this most recent state budget.

And really, the crux of the issue here is that we’re looking at a system of healthcare, not just in New York, but throughout the country, that prioritizes extracting a profit while making people feel better, instead of actually participating in some kind of widespread healing effort. And this is what happens when you have people running the system that are not direct workers, when they’re absorbed with their bottom line, and the politicians who write the policy are owned by them. And really, the people that suffer are the people on the frontline and the patients. And so, that’s why it’s been really interesting to hear this idea of nationalizing the healthcare system come out of this, because right now we’re dealing with a scarcity of resources and disjointed resources. And with a nationalized system, what we have is the ability to share resources across the system as needs arise.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Sarah, what gives you the strength? What gives you the remarkable bravery to go to work every day, when you encounter your own preexisting condition?

SARAH DOWD: Right. So, I’m type 1 diabetic since the age of 2. I’m now 30 years old. You know, this is not a time for people to be sitting on the sidelines. We need to be out here in it. We need to absolutely have our voices heard. We need to make big demands of the system, that it be changed in a way that can make it so that in the future we’re not cut to the bone in a situation like this, that we have a robust healthcare system. And that’s what we’re out here today to ask for.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re supporting Medicare for All?

SARAH DOWD: Yes, absolutely, Medicare for All, even further measures such as nationalizing the healthcare system.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I thank you so much, Sarah, for being there, registered nurse working at med/surg — that’s medical/surgical unit — at the city hospital, the public hospital, Harlem Hospital. She’s part of New York State Nurses Association union, helped to organize today’s frontline medical workers’ protest. Thank you for speaking above the sirens that are coming and going, that have become the soundtrack of New York City.

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