State health care unions sent a letter on March 9th to New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli requesting a meeting with all health care unions to address serious concerns members are facing in facilities across the state as related to coronavirus.
“Health care workers must feel confident that they have had the training they need and the protective equipment necessary to keep them safe while they continue to provide patient care to those infected with COVID-19,” Health Professionals and Allied Employees President Debbie White said. “Our unions are standing together to demand, not beg, but demand proper training and protections be readily available to every health care worker in every facility. Those concerns must be addressed before this virus spreads even further across the state.”
HPAE, 1199SEIU, 1199J National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, Committee of Interns and Residents SEIU, JNESO District Council 1, International Union of Operating Engineers, United Steelworkers International Union Local 4-200 and New Jersey Nurses Union, CWA Local 1091 all signed onto the letter.
The unions also called on hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, clinics and other health care facilities to provide personal protective equipment in an equitable manner, provide formal training, and ensure sufficient staffing levels at all times. All health care workers – providers, nurses, certified nursing aides, technical staff and service workers including environmental services janitorial staff and dietary workers – who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to COVID-19 must be afforded the same protections, the leaders said.
The CDC announced new, interim recommendations on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for situations where adequate supplies are unavailable. The advisory states that face masks are an acceptable alternative when the supply chain of respirators cannot meet demand.
According to the CDC, when the supply chain is restored, providers should return to the use of N95s.
The CDC states that: “This interim guidance has been updated based on currently available information about COVID-19 and the current situation in the United States, which includes reports of cases of community transmission, infections identified in health care personnel (HCP), and shortages of facemasks, N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs, commonly known as N95 respirators), and gowns.”
In a joint statement, the health care workers’ representatives urged NJDOH to maintain the position that N95 respirators are the standard, and are necessary protection for nurses and health care workers caring for suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients.
The unions are demanding that supply shortages must continue to be addressed in the most aggressive way possible and that the state continue to call on the CDC to proactively and effectively target the supply of respirators and use other controls to reduce the risk of infection in health care workers, as those professionals are at the highest risk of infection.
The unions strongly urged the federal government to release the national stockpile and target supplies to areas where the outbreak has already occurred; incentivizing U.S.-based companies to produce more N95s and better, disposable air purifying respirators; and promoting the use of powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) in health care settings.
In addition, union officials noted that many health care workers speak English as a second language. Instruction in the use of PPE, changes to the use of PPE, and instruction about safe work practices in environments where COVID-19 may be present should be provided in multiple languages and in clear, uncomplicated phrasing to increase access to essential information.
“Novel coronavirus poses significant risk to seniors and those with compromised immune systems, so it is incumbent on state and federal authorities to make sure that nursing facilities take comprehensive precautions now,” said Milly Silva, executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. “Union members of 1199SEIU in New Jersey are expressing urgent concerns about nursing home preparedness: what is the plan? This includes flags on prevention and protection tools such as adequate supplies, appropriate staffing, and frequent, consistent training on COVID-19.
“If we are lacking, we must improve immediately,” Silva added. “Less than two years ago, our state witnessed the terrible consequences of viral spread in a nursing home, when 11 children died at Wanaque Center. Today, we cannot wait for another tragedy to unfold before taking major action.”
Health care workers said that they would hold a virtual rally on social media on March 12 between 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. with the goal of delivering a message to the Murphy administration and New Jersey’s health care providers that health care workers need to stay strong by upholding protective measures and ensure every worker has the equipment, training, and support they need to keep communities safe.