Lawmakers are hoping to boost oversight and coordination between hospitals and state health officials amid a lull for New Jersey in the COVID-19 pandemic, as a Monday report from the state’s nurses’ union flags what it says was a total lack of protection and preparation from hospitals and state officials during the height of the outbreak.
“Health care workers are contracting this disease and are not being told of exposures. They’re not being protected, they are forced to work in conditions where they’re unable to avoid contracting COVID-19,” Debbie White, president of the 14,000-member Health Professionals and Allied Employees union, said during a Monday press conference.
“In many instances, they themselves are spreading the disease, infecting family and the public,” she said.
The HPAE’s 26-page survey released Monday, titled “Exposed and At-Risk,” interviewed 1,100 anonymous member workers.
They complained that hospitals faced severe shortages of masks such as N95s, and personal protective equipment such as face shields and gowns. Workers used the same masks and PPE until they were bloody, and many worked with “the same misshapen, contaminated N95s for days and weeks because they could not get a replacement,” the report says.
That PPE shortage continues today, the report warns, and could jeopardize the state’s reopening and its ability to respond to a second wave—highly expected to coincide with flu season in the fall.
The report found that 54 percent of the members were exposed to COVID-19 and 1 in 5 actually became sick. At least six members died.
Nurses complained they were not warned by hospital leadership that they were exposed, and 1 in 4 said they had to return to work even while displaying symptoms.
“There was no standard pandemic plan and therefore in every facility, the rules were different, every day and changed in the middle of the day,” White added.
Federal and state health agencies gave out haphazard and inconsistent guidelines for hospitals, making matters worse for hospital workers, the HPAE said.
Gov. Phil Murphy, on July 10, admitted that “we still don’t have the PPE we need as a state.”
“We have an expectation and aspiration and plans to get us to the point we can look at a stockpile and say we’ve got 30 days or 60 days or 90 days, whatever it may be, but we’re not there yet,” the governor said at a July 10 press conference.
State health officials and the governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the report.
Several of the hospitals outlined in the report denied the union’s allegations – others declined to comment on the contents of the survey.
“Hackensack Meridian Health supports our front-line heroes and continues to work diligently to ensure that our patients, team members and guests are safe,” reads a statement from Hackensack Meridian Health network, whose facilities are mentioned in the report. “The complaints included in this report are from anonymous team members and in some cases, HPAE does not even identify the hospital which employs the team member. Therefore, we cannot determine the veracity of the complaint.”
Still, New Bridge Medical Center pushed back against several allegations, saying “at no time did we experience a shortage of PPE.”
“The report highlights the need for the state to be prepared and we look forward to leading the way and working with the New Jersey Department of Health as we continue to safeguard the health and well-being of the communities we serve,” said spokesperson Donnalee Corrieri.
A bill in the state Legislature that the HPAE backs would require hospitals and other health care employers to release more data about which workers have tested positive for the virus.
Another measure, co-sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, and Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-14th District, creates a legal presumption that health care workers contracting COVID-19 got it on the job, making them eligible for worker’s compensation. It would be retroactive to the state of emergency Murphy declared on March 9, and bar hospitals and other essential employers from being charged time out of their paid leave for taking off while sick from the virus.