‘Keep us safe!’: US nurses hold protests over virus failings

Nurses protest weak response from the CDC to virus pandemic outside the UCLA Medical Center on March 11. (AFP pic)

LOS ANGELES: US nurses staged a day of action Wednesday calling for better protection in the fight against coronavirus, warning that medical chiefs had failed to learn from previous deadly global health crises.

“We need the proper protection … if we aren’t safe, our patients and our community aren’t safe,” warned Marcia Santini, an emergency room nurse at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) medical centre.

“The virus is just the latest in a long string of infectious disease crises that we have dealt with in recent years, including SARS, H1N1 (swine flu) and Ebola,” she said.

“Each time we are faced with a new infectious disease, our union is forced to address staffing, protection equipment and training.”

Santini, who has three decades of experience, spoke to AFP at one of a dozen events in California, Illinois and Georgia held by the country’s largest nursing union.

Last week the 150,000-strong National Nurses United issued the result of a survey denouncing the “disturbing” lack of preparation at many hospitals and clinics in the face of the deadly outbreak.

Over a third of respondees did not have access to protective masks, and half had not received any information on the novel coronavirus from employers.

Mary Beth Soscia told AFP that her ambulance in Los Angeles does not have any specific protective equipment against coronavirus.

Mike Hill, at a protest in Oakland near San Francisco, said resources and training should have been stepped up when the virus first broke out in Asia.

“We’ve known about this for quite a while, leading up to this – we should have been more prepared,” he said, as nurses dressed in bright red and holding balloons gathered outside a hospital chanting “Keep us safe!”

‘My family at risk’

Advice on handling and testing potentially infected patients has varied from county to county.

Northern California’s Placer, Yolo and Sacramento are among those which no longer advise people exposed to the virus – including health care workers and first responders – to quarantine themselves for two weeks.

For Andrea Peregrin, an emergency nurse based in southern California’s Santa Monica, that guidance is at odds with her own training.

“I think that anyone who has been exposed to a potential patient needs to be quarantined, and that’s why we need adequate staffing to prepare for that,” she told AFP.

UCLA must “create a plan to not only prevent exposure but to ensure that we have adequate staffing in all of our facilities,” she said, pointing to another California hospital where over 100 medics are currently quarantined.

Estela Villegas, at UCLA’s paediatric intensive care unit, agreed that mixed messages were a cause for major concern.

Days earlier an 18-month-old infant who showed signs of coronavirus had arrived without any notification and had to be placed in isolation.

“We had not been trained beforehand,” she said.

“I think about the health of my patients, but I also want to be able to go home without telling myself that I’m putting my family at risk.”