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‘Florida is a hot mess’: Nurses union raises alarm as coronavirus spreads

Hospitals are without adequate staffing and protective equipment, and patients are suffering because of it, members of National Nurses United said during a news conference.

Nurses from six of the country’s coronavirus hotspots, including Florida, held a news conference Monday, pleading with hospital administrators, government leaders and the general public to take COVID-19 more seriously.

National Nurses United, the country’s largest union for registered nurses, has been vocal since the pandemic’s start. It has raised alarms on inadequate staffing and protective equipment, as well as layoffs and the mounting burnout and anxiety nurses are facing.

Now, as infections surge across the country, nurses are worried about what is to come. They feel government leaders haven’t done enough to equip healthcare workers or inform the public, said union president Jean Ross, a nurse in Minnesota.

“Nurses can see the catastrophic levels of death and suffering on the horizon,” she added. “If we don’t correct course immediately, that will happen.”

Problems are prevalent in Florida hospitals, including those the Tampa Bay region, said Marisa Lee, a longtime labor and delivery nurse at Osceola Regional Medical Center in Kissimmee. Her hospital and others continue to force nurses to reuse disposable face masks and work on floors they don’t have the training for, she said.

Hospitals aren’t testing every patient for the virus, Lee added, and they aren’t testing nurses unless they have symptoms. Patients who are awaiting test results are housed near other patients who do not have the virus, and nurses who have been exposed aren’t being told by management. Those who test positive but do not have symptoms are made to come to work, Lee said.

Meanwhile, coronavirus patients are pouring in. About a quarter of Florida’s regular and intensive care unit beds were available Monday afternoon, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration.

“Florida is a hot mess,” Lee said. “Florida is wide open with no restrictions of any kind. We have already had many COVID patients and yes, those numbers are exponentially increasing.”

The unsafe working conditions have caused many nurses to quit, the union said. At Osceola Regional, 15 emergency room nurses have left and 20 quit from the medical-surgical floor, which has become the COVID-19 unit, Lee said. There are now four full-time nurses on that floor; the rest are contract or travel nurses.

Four other nurses shared dispatches from hot spots in Chicago; El Paso, Texas; Marquette, Mich.; and Robbinsdale, Minn. They told stories similar to Lee’s and said they’re afraid of what the holidays will mean for the rate of infection — and what that will force them to face at work.

“We know the right way to battle this virus and take care of our patients, but we are not prepared with the resources that we need,” said Minnesota nurse Mary Turner, who was visibly emotional. “There is something seriously wrong when nurses have to take to the streets to beg for protection in the middle of a pandemic.”

Consuelo Vargas’ hospital in Chicago can’t keep up with the demand of patients, and it’s leading to increases in bed sores and falls, as well as delayed care, she said. More people are showing up to the emergency room because they have lost their job and health insurance in the pandemic, and they can’t get care anywhere else.

“I see it on my coworkers’ faces,” Vargas said. “They’re so tired of fighting. They don’t have that much more to give. ... We need everyone to listen to the nurses. ... That means the hospital administration ... the government ... the general public.”

All the nurses, as well as union executive director Bonnie Castillo, urged the public to do its part, too, by staying home for the holidays. Gatherings will only increase spread of the virus and compound the problems nurses are already facing, she said.

“Are you willing to give up one holiday season for 10 more?” Vargas pleaded, teary-eyed. “Think of everything you want to accomplish in your life, the places you want to go, the things you want to do, the people you want to spend your time with. Are you willing to give all that up?”

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