Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at email@example.com.
As healthcare workers continue to suffer, sicken, and even die from a lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), a network of those workers is organizing a day of action tomorrow, April 15, around the country. Julie Keefe, a respiratory care nurse at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn and a member of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), is part of the actions that begin at 8 a.m.
“A network of nurses and healthcare workers around Labor Notes called for a day of action where we could raise our voices together, because so many of the issues going on right now are larger than our individual hospitals.” she said. “It’s systemic—both the nature of the problems and the nature of the solutions that might make a difference.”
In order to actually deal with the problems, including the shortages of PPE, she explained, “I don’t think there’s any way around nationalization of some of these producers, federally bringing some of these manufacturers under public control and directing them to produce to meet the need rather than allowing them to profit off of the scarcity.”
Keefe detailed what it’s like in her hospital and why the need is so great:
This is a very nasty disease that is bringing in people who are older, yes, but also younger, who take very sharp turns for the worse. It is exposing so many ways in which our healthcare system has been cut to the bone and is just unprepared to deal with this surge of need. Even before pandemic times, many places were operating on a shoestring amount of supplies, skeleton-crew staffing. It’s almost an impossible task to shift the healthcare system into being able to accommodate this rising need because there was no excess capacity. In the past, having beds that weren’t always occupied, having supplies that weren’t used tomorrow, was considered wasteful, unprofitable, excess. Well, now it has been shown to be a life-saving safety net.
At Kingsbrook, she said, they’re luckier than some: “You only have to use your mask and your gown for one day.” But, she explained, that’s not actually keeping anyone safe.
In the past, you only used your mask and gown for one patient encounter and then you’d carefully take it off. But now, we’re walking out into all the hospital areas with our contaminated PPE. It means that all the hospital environment, every space is contaminated. We are seeing workers from every department actually getting sick, and the deaths in the hospital are spread throughout many different departments.
The COVID-19 patients, she said, are pretty much the entire hospital at this point, though that’s not a rule. People who are not ill with the virus tend to stay home. But the delay in testing also contributes to the problem. “It can be up to nine days for test results to come,” she said. “With the lack of overall testing in society, it is like our government has given up on trying to actually put people in a situation of safely quarantining. It seems like they’ve given up on us in a lot of ways.”
Keefe stressed that many of the hospital workers’ deaths could have been prevented with better equipment. “I think that Trump and some of the politicians give lip service to healthcare workers being heroes, but this seems like it is more about creating acceptance of the idea that healthcare workers will die, and this is a sacrifice they signed up to make,” she said. “The same politicians calling healthcare workers heroes are not doing anything to protect the ones still standing from facing the same fate as some of their coworkers.”
The whole crisis, Keefe said, has made the inequalities in society and in the healthcare system much more apparent. In particular, in New York black and Latino people are dying at twice the rate of white people, she noted. “This is because of pre-existing racist inequalities in our broken for-profit healthcare system and also because workers of color are highly overrepresented in the ranks of the essential workers, particularly in healthcare in New York City. This virus is ramming through communities of color like a truck right now.” And the official numbers, she stressed, don’t tell the whole story. “There are a lot of people dying at home who haven’t had tests. I don’t know whether their numbers are getting counted yet or not or whether they will later. People who are dying at home of unexpected heart attacks—I think in a lot of cases they are basically these days COVID heart attacks because [the virus] can also attack the heart tissue.”
“As we try to process our trauma and our PTSD and our pain from this,” she said, “we also have to think about rebuilding a new type of healthcare system that is based on public health, patient needs, and not profit.”
Yet healthcare workers, the same ones lauded as heroes, are facing crackdowns at work for raising the issue of inadequate protection. “There’s a decent amount of fear because there’s been so many reports circulating of healthcare workers facing consequences for speaking out about the conditions in their workplaces,” she said. But they are still going to go forward with the day of action, “letting people know about our coworkers that have died and letting people know that when the politicians, such as Trump and [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo . . . tell the public that there is adequate PPE, this is not true.” Cuomo has gotten plenty of praise for his press conferences promoting his own handling of the crisis, but, Keefe said, “Cuomo said yesterday [March 12] that any hospital operating off the crisis protocols should let him know. Well, this is us letting him know.”
In addition to promoting the action on social media, Keefe said, “We would welcome the participation of non-immunocompromised members of the public in masks and maintaining social distance, or in their cars if that is safe for them.” They can hold signs out a car window or stand masked up on the pavement at a safe distance. “We are all in this together, and we can’t let the politicians get in the way of the frontline workers and the communities we serve working for each other and speaking in one voice about what the truth is.”
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.