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Nurses, health care workers demand safer workplaces as omicron rages

Nurses and other health care workers held protests across the Bay Area on Thursday to call for increased workplace protections amid the region’s deluge of Covid-19 cases due to the omicron variant.

Members of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United and the Caregiver Healthcare Employees Union held protests in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Sonoma, Marin and Alameda counties to call on health care providers to expand their nursing staffs.

Protesting workers said they’re being stretched too thin, with too few nurses and caregivers available to care for the influx of patients suffering from Covid and other ailments.

Valerie Delgado, a nurse at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center, said:

They keep saying there’s a shortage of nurses; I don’t think there’s a shortage of nurses. … I think there’s a shortage of nurses that want to work in the hospital under these conditions that are forced upon us.”

The protests were part of a national day of action by National Nurses United.

NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez said in a statement:

Employers have prioritized profits over safe patient care. … They have cut corners on safe staffing since long before Covid, and with the pandemic still in full swing, they are driving desperately needed nurses away from the profession.”

Roughly 82 percent of nurses surveyed across the country by NNU between October and December 2021 said that at least half of their shifts were understaffed.

The survey also found that 68 percent of responding nurses and caregivers have considered leaving the medical industry due to their current working conditions.

Triunfo-Cortez said:

The answer to nurses unwilling to work in unsafe conditions is never to overload the remaining nurses with more patients.”

The CNA also issued a condemnation of the California Department of Public Health for its recent guidance allowing asymptomatic workers to return to health care settings immediately, without requirements for isolation or testing, if they test positive or are exposed to the virus.

The CDPH issued the updated guidance Saturday, arguing that the state’s rapidly increasing number of Covid cases tied to the highly infectious omicron variant have already led to “critical staffing shortages.”

The CDPH said in a statement Thursday:

Given those conditions, the department is providing temporary flexibility to help hospitals and emergency services providers respond to an unprecedented surge and staffing shortages. … Hospitals have to exhaust all other options before resorting to this temporary tool.”

The CDPH added that Covid-positive or exposed workers should only interact with Covid-positive patients, if possible. They are also required to wear an N95 mask in an effort to avoid spreading the virus.

But Delgado argued pairing Covid-positive nurses with only Covid-positive patients is “very unrealistic,” noting that unit nurses are often placed in multiple units or floated to non-Covid units during a shift:

When the hospital is short, we have to fill in on the other units that have been short-staffed.”

The exposure and isolation guidelines are set to remain in effect through at least Feb. 1, according to the CDPH.

The CNA condemned the CDPH for the temporary guidance, arguing that it will lead to more workers and patients testing positive for Covid.

CNA President Cathy Kennedy said in a statement:

We want to care for our patients and see them get better – not potentially infect them. … Sending nurses and other health care workers back to work while infected is dangerous. If we get sick, who will be left to care for our patients and community?”

California Hospital Association President and CEO Carmela Coyle said in a statement Thursday that the health care industry did not ask for the new isolation guidance, nor does it necessarily agree that it is the right way to keep patients and workers safe.

Coyle said:

This guidance is a last resort option, and it is unlikely that many hospitals will exercise it. … Hospitals understand the safety concerns that unions, workers and patients have about this guidance.”

In a statement, Kaiser Permanente — one of the health care organizations that served as the backdrop for Thursday’s protests — said it is “extremely grateful” for its nursing and caregiver staff and noted that staffing is currently a challenge across the broader health care industry.

Kaiser also argued it hired some 2,000 nurses in Northern California by the end of last year, has added 300 nurses to its residency program and has brought in “experienced temporary staff” to shore up its depleted group of nursing and care workers.

Kaiser said in its statement:

We are using all options available to maintain hospital and ambulatory care staffing so we can meet the needs of our patients. … The situation remains dynamic, and we are prepared to respond to the ever-changing demands this pandemic may require.”

Coyle noted that more than 40 percent of the state’s hospitals are facing staff shortages, arguing that there are not enough health care workers to meet current demand and that “hospitals can’t hire workers who don’t exist.”

Coyle also said that many hospitals agree with health care workers about the need for staff funding – which she said should be included in the state budget – and improved safety standards, but that medical facilities must continue caring for patients whether or not they receive more support. She said:

Hospitals cannot just send patients home because health care workers are out sick.”

Delgado argued that many Covid unit nurses have chosen to move to other units rather than leave the industry entirely.

She noted that her own unit had seven nurses at the start of the pandemic, with only two of the original seven now remaining:

They have replaced some of the other nurses that have left … but that says a lot. … Out of seven nurses, five of us left the Covid unit. What does that tell you about the work environment?”

Delgado suggested a lack of respect and support is one reason nurses and other caregivers have been burnt out and pivoted away from working in hospitals:

We came into this knowing what we were getting into. … Why is it so hard for people to rally behind us?”

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