This terrible year taught me something about hope

The first month of the pandemic was also supposed to be the month I got pregnant, but my clinic closed and plans changed. Doctors and nurses needed personal protective equipment to tend to patients with covid-19, not women with recurrent miscarriages.

When the clinic reopened several months later, it turned out my husband and I had only been delaying yet another loss: In late August, he obeyed the medical center’s strict coronavirus protocols by waiting anxiously in the car while I trudged inside, masked and hand-sanitized, to receive a miscarriage diagnosis alone. I searched the ultrasound screen for the rhythmic beat of a heart, and then accepted that whatever had once been there was now gone.

But that was 2020 for you, consistent only in its utter crappiness. For every inspiring video of neighbors applauding a shift change at the hospital, another video of a bone-tired nurse begging viewers to believe covid was real, it wasn’t a hoax, wear a mask.

For every protest organized by activists who understood racism is also a long-term crisis, an appearance by the Proud Boys; for every GoFundMe successfully raising money for a beloved teacher’s hospital bills, a bitter acknowledgment that online panhandling is our country’s version of a safety net.

Millions of citizens stood in line for hours to vote for the next president and then endured weeks of legal petitions arguing that their votes should be negated. The basis for these legal actions were conspiracy theories too wild to be believed, except that millions of other citizens believed them.

And that was 2020 for you, too: accepting the increasingly obvious reality that the country was in peril, built on iffy foundations that now buckled under pressure. My loved ones who worked as waiters or bartenders or physical therapists were choosing between health and paychecks, and even from the lucky safety of my work-from-home job, each day began to feel like watching America itself arrive at a hospital in bad shape, praying that doctors or clergy could find something they were able to save.

Is there a heartbeat?

You want the answer to be yes, but even so, it was hard to imagine how we would come back from this.

What kind of delusional person would even try to get pregnant in this world? In my case it would never be a happy accident; it would always be a herculean effort. And so it seemed I should have some answers.

How do you explain to a future child: Sorry, we can’t fix climate change; we can’t even get people to agree that we should wear masks in grocery stores? How do you explain the frustration of seeing brokenness, and then the wearying choice of trying to fix it instead of abandoning it? How do you say, Love it anyway. You’re inheriting an absolute mess, but love it anyway?

I found myself asking a lot of things like this in 2020, but really they were all variations of the same question: What does it mean to have hope?

But in the middle of this, scientists worked quietly in labs all over the world. They applied the scientific method with extraordinary discipline and speed. A vaccine was developed. Tens of thousands of volunteers rolled up their sleeves and said, Try it out on me.

It was approved, and a nurse from Long Island was the first American televised receiving it. Her name was Sandra Lindsay, an immigrant from Jamaica who had come to the United States 30 years ago and who had spent the last year overseeing critical care teams in back-to-back shifts. She said she had agreed to go first to show communities of color, long abused, brushed-off or condescended to by the medical system, that the vaccine was safe.

Here was hope. And more than that, here was hope from a woman who had more reason than most to be embittered: an exhausted health-care worker who knew too well America’s hideous racial past and present, who nonetheless also knew there was only one way out of the tunnel. Here she was, rolling up her own sleeve, and there were the lines of hospital employees ready to go after her, and there were the truck drivers ferrying shipments of syringes.

I can’t have been the only person to watch the video of those early inoculations, feeling elated and tired, and to then burst into tears. I can’t have been the only person to realize that even as 2020 revealed brokenness, it also contained such astounding undercurrents of good.

The scientific method works whether you accept it or not. Doctors try to save you whether you respected public-health guidelines or not. Voter turnout was astronomical because individual citizens realized they were all, every one of them, necessary pieces in a puzzle, even if they couldn’t see what the final picture was supposed to look like.

The way to believe in America is to believe those things are passed down, too.

Sometime in October, a couple of months after my last miscarriage — when the country was riding up on eight months of lonely and stoic birthdays, graduations, deaths and weddings — I went into the bathroom and saw a faint second line on a First Response pregnancy test. It was far from my first rodeo, so I knew better than to get excited. I mentioned it to my husband with studied nonchalance, I told him that I’d test again in a few days but that we should assume the worst would happen.

Two weeks after that, I had a doctor’s appointment, and then another a week later, each time assuming the worst, but each time scheduling another appointment anyway, until eventually I was further along than I’d ever gotten before — by one day, then three days, then thirty.

I am not a superstitious person. I don’t believe that good things always come to those who deserve them. I believe that stories regularly have sad endings and that it’s often nobody’s fault when they do, and that we should tell more stories with sad endings so that people who experience them know that they’re not alone.

But 2020 has taught me that I am, for better or worse, someone who wants to hope for things. To believe in the people who developed vaccines. In the people who administered them. In Sandra Lindsay. In the people who delivered groceries, who sewed masks, who have long cursed America’s imperfect systems and long fought to change them, who still donate $10 to a sick teacher’s GoFundMe.

At my most recent appointment, the doctor’s office was backed up in a holiday logjam. I sat in the exam room for nearly three hours while my husband again waited anxiously in the car. I texted him sporadic updates and tried to put hope in a process that so far had not seemed to warrant my hope.

It all felt precarious. The current reality always feels precarious.

And yet there we all are together, searching for signs of life, hoping that whatever we emerge to can be better than what we had before, and that whatever we build will become our new legacy. The sonographer finally arrived and turned on the machine.

There was a heartbeat. There was a heartbeat.

Cartoon – The Customer is Often Wrong

My son's kindergarten is doing remote learning. It's the worst. | cartoon

Cartoon – Just Two on the Front Lines

health insurance

Into the COVID fray again, or for the first time

https://mailchi.mp/45f15de483b9/the-weekly-gist-october-9-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Addressing Workforce Needs for COVID-19 | University at Albany

While it sometimes seems like the coronavirus has been with us forever, it’s worth remembering that there are still parts of the country that are only now experiencing their first big spike in cases—that’s the nature of a “patchwork” pandemic working its way across a vast country.

One of our health system members in the Midwest, with whom we recently spent time, is in just this situation: they’re seeing their highest inpatient COVID census to date, just this month. As they shared with us, there are advantages and drawbacks to being a “late follower” on the epidemic curve. The good news is that they’re ready.

Back in March, like most systems, they stood up an “incident command center”, and began preparing for a wave of COVID patients, designating a floor of the hospital as a “hot zone”, creating negative pressure rooms, cross-training staff, developing treatment protocols, stockpiling protective equipment, and securing a pipeline of critical therapeutics and testing supplies. There was a moderate but manageable number of cases across the late spring and summer, but never to an extent that stressed the system.
 
Eventually, recognizing that they couldn’t ask their doctors, nurses, and administrators to stay on high alert indefinitely, they “stood down” to a more normal operational tempo, only to watch with dismay as the surrounding community seemingly forgot about the virus, and lessened precautions (masking, distancing, and so forth), wanting life to return to “normal”. And now, the post-Labor Day, post-return-to-school spike has arrived.

The challenge now is getting everyone, inside and outside the system, to stop talking about COVID in the past tense, as though they’ve already “gotten through it.” The preparations they’ve made are paying off now. Hospital operations continue to run smoothly even with a high COVID census, but the workforce is exhausted, and citizens aren’t stepping outside to bang gratefully on pots every night anymore.

Asking the team to return to war footing is no easy task, given the fatigue of the past seven months. A question looms: what is the trigger to restart “incident command”? As cases begin to increase again in some of the original COVID hot spots—New York, New England, the Pacific Northwest—healthcare leaders there will need to learn from the experiences of their colleagues in the newly-hit Midwest, about how to take an already virus-weary clinical workforce back onto the battlefield.

What it’s like to be a nurse after 6 months of COVID-19 response

https://www.healthcaredive.com/trendline/labor/28/?utm_source=HD&utm_medium=Library&utm_campaign=Vituity&utm_term=Healthcare%20Dive#story-2

Those on the front lines of the fight against the novel coronavirus worry about keeping themselves, their families and their patients safe.

This story is part of a series examining the state of healthcare six months into the public health emergency declared for COVID-19.

There’s no end in sight for the country as it grapples with another surge of COVID-19 cases.

That’s especially true for nurses seeking the reprieve of their hospitals returning to normal operations sometime this year. Many in the South and West are now treating ICUs full of COVID-19 patients they hoped would never arrive in their states, largely spared from spring’s first wave.

And like many other essential workers, those in healthcare are falling ill and dying from COVID-19. The total number of nurses stricken by the virus is still unclear, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 106,180 cases and 552 deaths among healthcare workers. That’s almost certainly an undercount.

National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, told Healthcare Dive it has counted 165 nurse deaths from COVID-19 and an additional 1,060 healthcare worker deaths.

Safety concerns have ignited union activity among healthcare workers during the pandemic, and also given them an opportunity to punctuate labor issues that aren’t new, like nurse-patient ratios, adequate pay and racial equality.

At the same time, the hospitals they work for are facing some of their worst years yet financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes that analysts predict will continue through the year. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.

Healthcare Dive had in-depth conversations with three nurses to get a clearer picture of how they’re faring amid the once-in-a-century pandemic. Here’s what they said.

 

Elizabeth Lalasz, registered nurse, John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago

Elizabeth Lalasz has worked at John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago for the past 10 years. Her hospital is a safety net facility, catering to those who are “Black, Latinx, the homeless, inmates,” Lalasz told Healthcare Dive. “People who don’t actually receive the kind of healthcare they should in this country.”

Data from the CDC show racial and ethnic minority groups are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age, due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities.

CDC data reveal that Black people are five times more likely to contract the virus than white people.

This spring Lalasz treated inmates from the Cook County Jail, an epicenter in the city and also the country. “That population gradually decreased, and then we just had COVID patients, many of them Latinx families,” she said.

Permission granted by Elizabeth Lalasz

Once Chicago’s curve began to flatten and the hospital could take non-COVID patients, those coming in for treatment were desperately sick. They’d been delaying care for non-COVID conditions, worried a trip to the hospital could risk infection.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in May found that 48% of Americans said they or a family member had skipped or delayed medical care because of the pandemic. And 11% said the person’s condition worsened as a result of the delayed care.

When patients do come into Lalasz’s hospital, many have “chest pain, then they also have diabetes, asthma, hypertension and obesity, it just adds up,” she said.

“So now we’re also treating people who’ve been delaying care. But after the recent southern state surges, the hospital census started going down again,” she said.

Amy Arlund, registered nurse, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fresno, California:

Amy Arlund works the night shift at Kaiser Fresno as an ICU nurse, which she’s done for the past two decades.

She’s also on the hospital’s infection control committee, where for years she’s fought to control the spread of clostridium difficile colitis, or C. diff., in her facility. The highly infectious disease can live on surfaces outside the body for months or sometimes years.

The measures Arlund developed to control C. diff served as her litmus test, as “the top, most stringent protocols we could adhere to,” when coronavirus patients arrived at her hospital, she told Healthcare Dive.

But when COVID-19 cases surged in northern states this spring, “it’s like all those really strict isolation protocols that prior to COVID showing up would be disciplinable offenses were gone,” Arlund said.

Widespread personal protective equipment shortages at the start of the pandemic led the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to change their longstanding guidance on when to use N95 respirator masks, which have long been the industry standard when dealing with novel infectious diseases.

The CDC also issued guidance for N95 respirator reuse, an entirely new concept to nurses like Arlund who say those changes go against everything they learned in school.

“I think the biggest change is we always relied on science, and we have always relied heavily on infection control protocols to guide our practice,” Arlund said. “Now infection control is out of control, we can no longer rely on the information and resources we always have.”

Permission granted by Amy Arlund

The CDC says experts are still learning how the coronavirus spreads, though person-to-person transmission is most common, while the World Health Organization recently acknowledged that it wouldn’t rule out airborne transmission of the virus.

In Arlund’s ICU, she’s taken care of dozens of COVID positive patients and patients ruled out for coronavirus, she said. After a first wave in the beginning of April, cases dropped, but are now rising again.

Other changing guidance weighing heavily on nurses is how to effectively treat coronavirus patients.

“Are we doing remdesivir this week or are we going back to the hydroxychloroquine, or giving them convalescent plasma?”Arlund said. “Next week I’m going to be giving them some kind of lavender enema, who knows.”

 

Erik Andrews, registered nurse, Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California:

Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in California, has treated coronavirus patients since the pandemic started earlier this year. He likens ventilating them to diffusing a bomb.

“These types of procedures generate a lot of aerosols, you have to do everything in perfectly stepwise fashion, otherwise you’re going to endanger yourself and endanger your colleagues,” Andrews, who’s been at Riverside for the past 13 years, told Healthcare Dive.

He and about 600 other nurses at the hospital went on strike for 10 days this summer after a staffing agreement between the hospital and its owner, HCA Healthcare, and SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing RCH nurses, ended without a renewal.

The nurses said it would lead to too few nurses treating too many patients during a pandemic. Insufficient PPE and recycling of single-use PPE were also putting nurses and patients at risk, the union said, and another reason for the strike.

But rapidly changing guidance around PPE use and generally inconsistent information from public officials are now making the nurses at his hospital feel apathetic.

“Unfortunately I feel like in the past few weeks it’s gotten to the point where you have to remind people about putting on their respirator instead of face mask, so people haven’t gotten lax, but definitely kind of become desensitized compared to when we first started,” Andrews said.

Permission granted by Erik Andrews

With two children at home, Andrews slept in a trailer in his driveway for 12 weeks when he first started treating coronavirus patients. The trailer is still there, just in case, but after testing negative twice he felt he couldn’t spend any more time away from his family.

He still worries though, especially about his coworkers’ families. Some coworkers he’s known for over a decade, including one staff member who died from COVID-19 related complications.

“It’s people you know and you know that their families worry about them every day,” he said. “So to know that they’ve had to deal with that loss is pretty horrifying, and to know that could happen to my family too.”

 

 

 

 

Pandemic spurs national union activity among hospital workers

https://www.healthcaredive.com/trendline/labor/28/?utm_source=HD&utm_medium=Library&utm_campaign=Vituity&utm_term=Healthcare%20Dive#story-1

When COVID-19 cases swelled in New York and other northern states this spring, Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in southern California, thought his hospital should have enough time to prepare for the worst.

Instead, he said his hospital faced staffing cuts and a lack of adequate personal protective equipment that led around 600 of its nurses to strike for 10 days starting in late June, just before negotiating a new contract with the hospital and its owner, Nashville-based HCA Healthcare.

“To feel like you were just put out there on the front lines with as minimal support necessary was incredibly disheartening,” Andrews said. Two employees at RCH have died from COVID-19, according to SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing them.

A spokesperson for HCA told Healthcare Dive the “strike has very little to do with the best interest of their members and everything to do with contract negotiations.”

Across the country, the pandemic is exacerbating labor tensions with nurses and other healthcare workers, leading to a string of disputes around what health systems are doing to keep front-line staff safe. The workers’ main concerns are adequate staffing and PPE. Ongoing or upcoming contract negotiations could boost their leverage.

But many of the systems that employ these workers are themselves stressed in a number of ways, above all financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.

Striking a balance between doing union action at hospitals and continuing care for patients could be an ongoing challenge, Patricia Campos-Medina, co-director of New York State AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute.

“The nurses association has been very active since the beginning of the crisis, demanding PPE and doing internal activities in their hospitals demanding proper procedures,” Campos-Medina said. “They are front-line workers, so they have to be thoughtful in how they continue to provide care but also protect themselves and their patients.”

At Prime Healthcare’s Encino Hospital Medical Center, just outside Los Angeles, medical staff voted to unionize July 5, a week after the hospital laid off about half of its staff, including its entire clinical lab team, according to SEIU Local 121RN, which now represents those workers.

One of the first things the newly formed union will fight is “the unjust layoffs of their colleagues,” it said in a statement.

A Prime Healthcare spokesperson told Healthcare Dive 25 positions were cut. “These Encino positions were not part of front-line care and involved departments such as HR, food services, and lab services,” the system said.

Hospital service workers elsewhere who already have bargaining rights are also bringing attention to what they deem as staffing and safety issues.

In Chicago, workers at Loretto Hospital voted to authorize a strike Thursday. Those workers include patient care technicians, emergency room technicians, mental health staff and dietary and housekeeping staff, according to SEIU Healthcare Illinois, the union that represents them. They’ve been bargaining with hospital management for a new contract since December and plan to go on strike July 20.

Loretto Hospital is a safety-net facility, catering primarily to “Black and Brown West Side communities plagued with disproportionate numbers of COVID illnesses and deaths in recent months,” the union said.

The “Strike For Black Lives” is in response to “management’s failure to bargain in good faith on critical issues impacting the safety and well-being of both workers and patients — including poverty level wages and short staffing,” according to the union.

A Loretto spokesperson told Healthcare Dive the system is hopeful that continuing negotiations will bring an agreement, though it’s “planning as if a strike is eminent and considering the best options to continue to provide healthcare services to our community.”

Meanwhile in Joliet, Illinois, more than 700 nurses at Amita St. Joseph Medical Center went on strike July 4.

The Illinois Nurses Association which represents Amita nurses, cited ongoing concerns about staff and patient safety during the pandemic, namely adequate PPE, nurse-to-patient ratios and sick pay, they want addressed in the next contract. They are currently bargaining for a new one, and said negotiations stalled. The duration of the strike is still unclear.

However, a hospital spokesperson told Healthcare Dive, “Negotiations have been ongoing with proposals and counter proposals exchanged.”

The hospital’s most recent proposal “was not accepted, but negotiations will continue,” the system said.

INA is also upset with Amita’s recruitment of out-of-state nurses to replace striking ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It sent a letter to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, asserting the hospital used “emergency permits that are intended only for responding to the pandemic for purposes of aiding the hospital in a labor dispute.”

 

 

 

 

Medicaid Is Essential for Workers

Medicaid Is Essential for Workers

Earlier this year, when public schools in Kansas City, Missouri, shut down in-person instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nika Cotton quit her job in social work to start her own business. She has two young children — ages 8 and 10 — and no one to watch them if she were to continue working a traditional job.

It was a big decision, made weightier by the loss of her employer-sponsored health insurance. But on August 5, Cotton awoke to the news that Missouri voters had narrowly approved the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program via ballot initiative, making it the second politically right-leaning state to do so during the pandemic. The expansion opens Medicaid eligibility to individuals and families with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty guidelines, which are $12,760 for an individual and $21,720 for a family of three, allowing Cotton’s family of three to qualify.

“It takes a lot of stress off of my shoulders with having to think about how I’m going to take care of myself, how I’m going to be able to go and see a doctor and get the health care I need while I’m starting my business,” she told Alex Smith of KCUR, the NPR affiliate in Kansas City.

Nearly 1,264,000 voters weighed in on the measure, with 53% voting for it and 47% against it. Missouri’s Republican governor Mike Parson opposed it, arguing that the state could not afford the coverage expansion — even though the federal government pays 90% of the costs and a fiscal analysis (PDF) by the Center for Health Economics and Policy at Washington University estimated that the state would save $39 million if it implemented Medicaid expansion in 2020.

The ballot measure requires the state to expand Medicaid by July 2021, and an estimated 230,000 residents with low incomes will become eligible for affordable health coverage.

Voters Signal Support

In late June, Oklahoma voters also approved Medicaid expansion by ballot measure, eking out a victory by less than one percentage point.

“It is difficult to ignore that these ballot initiatives passed in right-leaning states in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, when millions of Americans have lost their jobs and, with them, their employer-sponsored health insurance,” Dylan Scott wrote in Vox. “This is partly a coincidence — the signatures were collected to put the Medicaid expansion questions on the ballot long before COVID-19 ever arrived in the US — but the relatively narrow margins made me wonder if the pandemic and its economic and medical consequences proved decisive.”

Earlier this year, Scott spoke to Cynthia Cox, MPH, director of the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker, about the potential impact of the pandemic on health care politics. “Many of the biggest coverage expansions both in the US and in similar countries happened in the context of wars and social upheavals, as well as financial crises,” Cox said. “One theory is that those circumstances redefine social solidarity, thus expanding views of the role of government.”

Between February and May, Missouri’s Medicaid program saw enrollment rise nearly 9%, one of the largest increases nationwide during the pandemic, Rachel Roubein reported in Politico. During that same period, Oklahoma’s Medicaid program saw enrollment increase by about 6%.

States that implemented Medicaid expansion are better positioned to respond to COVID-19, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). These states entered the health crisis and resulting economic downturn with lower uninsured rates, which is important for public health “because people who are uninsured may forgo testing or treatment for COVID-19 due to concerns that they cannot afford it, endangering their health while slowing detection of the virus’ spread,” the authors wrote.

CBPP and KFF estimate that 3.6 to 4.4 million uninsured adults would become eligible for Medicaid coverage if the 12 states that have not yet expanded the program did so. Those states are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Coverage for Frontline Essential Workers

Medicaid is particularly important for frontline essential workers — such as those working in grocery stores, meat processing plants, and nursing homes — during the pandemic. Their jobs require them to report in person, increasing their risk of getting sick with the coronavirus as they interact with coworkers and, in many cases, with customers and patients. Essential workers are often paid low wages and not offered employer-sponsored health insurance or can’t afford the premiums for it.

About 5 million essential workers nationwide get health coverage through Medicaid, “including nearly 1.8 million people working in frontline health care services and 1.6 million in other frontline essential services including transportation, waste management, and child care,” Matt Broaddus, senior research analyst at CBPP, wrote on the center’s blog.

In California, over 950,000 essential workers are enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program. People of color are overrepresented in many categories of essential jobs. According to a UC Berkeley Labor Center analysis of the 15 largest frontline essential occupations, Latinx workers are overrepresented in agriculture, construction, and food preparation, among other occupations. Asian workers are overrepresented among registered nurses and personal care aides; and Black workers are overrepresented among personal care aides, laborers and material movers, and office clerks.

In addition to low-wage workers, Medi-Cal continues to bridge the coverage gap for other key populations amid the COVID-19 crisis, which is magnifying historical health inequities. (Medi-Cal covers nearly 40% of the state’s children, half of Californians with disabilities, and over one million seniors. For a refresher on the program, see CHCF’s Medi-Cal Explained series.)

Medicaid Saves Lives

Research has shown time and time again the varied benefits of Medicaid expansion: lower mortality rates among older adults with low incomes, declines in infant mortality, reductions in racial disparities in the care of cancer patients, and fewer personal bankruptcies, just to name a few.

Even though Missouri’s Medicaid expansion won’t take effect for another year, Nika Cotton remains excited. “It’s better late than never,” she said. “The fact that it’s coming is better than nothing” — perhaps a takeaway for the remaining 12 states.

 

 

 

 

What it’s like to be a nurse after 6 months of COVID-19 response

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/what-its-like-to-be-a-nurse-6-months-coronavirus/581709/

Those on the front lines of the fight against the novel coronavirus worry about keeping themselves, their families and their patients safe.

That’s especially true for nurses seeking the reprieve of their hospitals returning to normal operations sometime this year. Many in the South and West are now treating ICUs full of COVID-19 patients they hoped would never arrive in their states, largely spared from spring’s first wave.

And like many other essential workers, those in healthcare are falling ill and dying from COVID-19. The total number of nurses stricken by the virus is still unclear, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 106,180 cases and 552 deaths among healthcare workers. That’s almost certainly an undercount.

National Nurses United, the country’s largest nurses union, told Healthcare Dive it has counted 165 nurse deaths from COVID-19 and an additional 1,060 healthcare worker deaths.

Safety concerns have ignited union activity among healthcare workers during the pandemic, and also given them an opportunity to punctuate labor issues that aren’t new, like nurse-patient ratios, adequate pay and racial equality.

At the same time, the hospitals they work for are facing some of their worst years yet financially, after months of delayed elective procedures and depleted volumes that analysts predict will continue through the year. Many have instituted furloughs and layoffs or other workforce reduction measures.

Healthcare Dive had in-depth conversations with three nurses to get a clearer picture of how they’re faring amid the once-in-a-century pandemic. Here’s what they said.

Elizabeth Lalasz, registered nurse, John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago

Elizabeth Lalasz has worked at John H. Stroger Hospital in Chicago for the past 10 years. Her hospital is a safety net facility, catering to those who are “Black, Latinx, the homeless, inmates,” Lalasz told Healthcare Dive. “People who don’t actually receive the kind of healthcare they should in this country.”

Data from the CDC show racial and ethnic minority groups are at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age, due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities.

CDC data reveal that Black people are five times more likely to contract the virus than white people.

This spring Lalasz treated inmates from the Cook County Jail, an epicenter in the city and also the country. “That population gradually decreased, and then we just had COVID patients, many of them Latinx families,” she said.

Once Chicago’s curve began to flatten and the hospital could take non-COVID patients, those coming in for treatment were desperately sick. They’d been delaying care for non-COVID conditions, worried a trip to the hospital could risk infection.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in May found that 48% of Americans said they or a family member had skipped or delayed medical care because of the pandemic. And 11% said the person’s condition worsened as a result of the delayed care.

When patients do come into Lalasz’s hospital, many have “chest pain, then they also have diabetes, asthma, hypertension and obesity, it just adds up,” she said.

“So now we’re also treating people who’ve been delaying care. But after the recent southern state surges, the hospital census started going down again,” she said.

Amy Arlund, registered nurse, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fresno, California:

Amy Arlund works the night shift at Kaiser Fresno as an ICU nurse, which she’s done for the past two decades.

She’s also on the hospital’s infection control committee, where for years she’s fought to control the spread of clostridium difficile colitis, or C. diff., in her facility. The highly infectious disease can live on surfaces outside the body for months or sometimes years.

The measures Arlund developed to control C. diff served as her litmus test, as “the top, most stringent protocols we could adhere to,” when coronavirus patients arrived at her hospital, she told Healthcare Dive.

But when COVID-19 cases surged in northern states this spring, “it’s like all those really strict isolation protocols that prior to COVID showing up would be disciplinable offenses were gone,” Arlund said.

Widespread personal protective equipment shortages at the start of the pandemic led the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to change their longstanding guidance on when to use N95 respirator masks, which have long been the industry standard when dealing with novel infectious diseases.

The CDC also issued guidance for N95 respirator reuse, an entirely new concept to nurses like Arlund who say those changes go against everything they learned in school.

“I think the biggest change is we always relied on science, and we have always relied heavily on infection control protocols to guide our practice,” Arlund said. “Now infection control is out of control, we can no longer rely on the information and resources we always have.”

The CDC says experts are still learning how the coronavirus spreads, though person-to-person transmission is most common, while the World Health Organization recently acknowledged that it wouldn’t rule out airborne transmission of the virus.

In Arlund’s ICU, she’s taken care of dozens of COVID positive patients and patients ruled out for coronavirus, she said. After a first wave in the beginning of April, cases dropped, but are now rising again.

Other changing guidance weighing heavily on nurses is how to effectively treat coronavirus patients.

“Are we doing remdesivir this week or are we going back to the hydroxychloroquine, or giving them convalescent plasma?”Arlund said. “Next week I’m going to be giving them some kind of lavender enema, who knows.”

Erik Andrews, registered nurse, Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California:

Erik Andrews, a rapid response nurse at Riverside Community Hospital in California, has treated coronavirus patients since the pandemic started earlier this year. He likens ventilating them to diffusing a bomb.

“These types of procedures generate a lot of aerosols, you have to do everything in perfectly stepwise fashion, otherwise you’re going to endanger yourself and endanger your colleagues,” Andrews, who’s been at Riverside for the past 13 years, told Healthcare Dive.

He and about 600 other nurses at the hospital went on strike for 10 days this summer after a staffing agreement between the hospital and its owner, HCA Healthcare, and SEIU Local 121RN, the union representing RCH nurses, ended without a renewal.

The nurses said it would lead to too few nurses treating too many patients during a pandemic. Insufficient PPE and recycling of single-use PPE were also putting nurses and patients at risk, the union said, and another reason for the strike.

But rapidly changing guidance around PPE use and generally inconsistent information from public officials are now making the nurses at his hospital feel apathetic.

“Unfortunately I feel like in the past few weeks it’s gotten to the point where you have to remind people about putting on their respirator instead of face mask, so people haven’t gotten lax, but definitely kind of become desensitized compared to when we first started,” Andrews said.

With two children at home, Andrews slept in a trailer in his driveway for 12 weeks when he first started treating coronavirus patients. The trailer is still there, just in case, but after testing negative twice he felt he couldn’t spend any more time away from his family.

He still worries though, especially about his coworkers’ families. Some coworkers he’s known for over a decade, including one staff member who died from COVID-19 related complications.

“It’s people you know and you know that their families worry about them every day,” he said. “So to know that they’ve had to deal with that loss is pretty horrifying, and to know that could happen to my family too.”

 

 

 

Houston, Miami, other cities face mounting health care worker shortages as infections climb

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/houston-miami-and-other-cities-face-mounting-health-care-worker-shortages-as-infections-climb/2020/07/25/45fd720c-ccf8-11ea-b0e3-d55bda07d66a_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR14P9OGxTOPU8pMgjsVof7YlOAPv-vfxq2MBm9RlpYFVVa3qvpmvyIjFyA

Shortages of health care workers are worsening in Houston, Miami, Baton Rouge and other cities battling sustained covid-19 outbreaks, exhausting staffers and straining hospitals’ ability to cope with spiking cases.

That need is especially dire for front-line nurses, respiratory therapists and others who play hands-on, bedside roles where one nurse is often required for each critically ill patient.

While many hospitals have devised ways to stretch material resources — converting surgery wards into specialized covid units and recycling masks and gowns — it is far more difficult to stretch the human workers needed to make the system function.

“At the end of the day, the capacity for critical care is a balance between the space, staff and stuff. And if you have a bottleneck in one, you can’t take additional patients,” said Mahshid Abir, a senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and director of the Acute Care Research Unit (ACRU) at the University of Michigan. “You have to have all three … You can’t have a ventilator, but not a respiratory therapist.”

“What this is going to do is it’s going to cost lives, not just for covid patients, but for everyone else in the hospital,” she warned.

The increasingly fraught situation reflects packed hospitals across large swaths of the country: More than 8,800 covid patients are hospitalized in Texas; Florida has more than 9,400; and at least 13 other states also have thousands of hospitalizations, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

Facilities in several states, including Texas, South Carolina and Indiana, have in recent weeks reported shortages of such workers, according to federal planning documents viewed by The Post, pitting states and hospitals against one another to recruit staff.

On Thursday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said he asked the federal government to send in 700 health-care workers to assist besieged hospitals.

“Even if for some strange reason … you don’t care about covid-19, you should care about that hospital capacity when you have an automobile accident or when you have your heart attack or your stroke, or your mother or grandmother has that stroke,” Edwards said at a news conference.

In Florida, 39 hospitals have requested help from the state for respiratory therapists, nurses and nursing assistants. In South Carolina, the National Guard is sending 40 medical professionals to five hospitals in response to rising cases.

Many medical facilities anticipate their staffing problems will deteriorate, according to the planning documents: Texas is hardest hit, with South Carolina close behind. Needs range from pharmacists to physicians.

Hot spots stretch across the country, from Miami and Atlanta to Southern California and the Rio Grande Valley, and the demands for help are as diffuse as the suffering.

“What we have right now are essentially three New Yorks with these three major states,” White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx said Friday during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.

But today’s diffuse transmission requires innovative thinking and a different response from months ago in New York, say experts. While some doctors have been able to share expertise online and nurses have teamed up to relieve pressures, the overall strains are growing.

“We missed the boat,” said Serena Bumpus, a leader of multiple Texas nursing organizations and regional director of nursing for the Austin Round Rock Region of Baylor Scott and White Health.

Bumpus blames a lack of coordination at national and state officials. “It feels like this free-for-all,” she said, “and each organization is just kind of left up to their own devices to try to figure this out.”

In a disaster, a hospital or local health system typically brings in help from neighboring communities. But that standard emergency protocol, which comes into play following a hurricane or tornado, “is predicated on the notion that you’ll have a concentrated area of impact,” said Christopher Nelson, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

That is how Texas has functioned in the past, said Jennifer Banda, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the Texas Hospital Association, recalling the influx of temporary help after Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston three years ago.

It is how the response took shape early in the outbreak, when health-care workers headed to hard-hit New York.

But the sustained and far-flung nature of the pandemic has made that approach unworkable. “The challenge right now,” Banda said, “is we are taxing the system all across the country.”

Theresa Q. Tran, an emergency medicine physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, began to feel the crunch in June. Only a few weeks before, she had texted a friend to say how disheartening it was to see crowds of people reveling outdoors without masks on Memorial Day weekend.

Her fears were borne out when she found herself making call after call after call from her ER, unable to admit a critically ill patient because her hospital had run out of ICU space, but unable to find a hospital able to take them.

Under normal circumstances, the transfer of such patients — “where you’re afraid to look away, or to blink, because they may just crash on you,” as Tran describes them — happens quickly to ensure the close monitoring the ICU affords.

Those critical patients begin to stall in the ER, stretching the abilities of the nurses and doctors attending to them. “A lot of people, they come in, and they need attention immediately,” Tran said, noting that emergency physicians are constantly racing against time. “Time is brain, or time is heart.”

By mid-July, an influx of “surge” staff brought relief, Tran said. But that was short-lived as the crisis jumped from one locality to the next, with the emergency procedures to bring in more staff never quite keeping up with the rising infections.

An ER physician in the Rio Grande Valley said all three of the major trauma hospitals in the area have long since run out of the ability to absorb new ICU patients.

“We’ve been full for weeks,” said the physician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation for speaking out about the conditions.

“The truth is, the majority of our work now in the emergency department is ICU work,” he said. “Some of our patients down here, we’re now holding them for days.” And each one of those critically ill patients needs a nurse to stay with them.

When ICU space has opened up — maybe two, three, four beds — it never feels like relief, he said, because in the time it takes to move those patients out, 20 new ones arrive.

Even with help his hospital has received — masks and gowns were procured, and the staff more than doubled in the past few weeks with relief nurses and other health-care workers from outside — it still is not enough.

The local nurses are exhausted. Some quit. Even the relief nurses who helped out in New York in the spring seem horrified by the scale of the disaster in South Texas, he said.

“If no one comes and helps us out and gives us the ammo we need to fight this thing, we are not going to win,” the doctor said.

One of the root causes of the problem in the United States is that emergency departments and ICUs are often operating at or near capacity, Abir and Nelson said, putting them dangerously close to shortages before a crisis even hits.

Texas, along with 32 other states, has joined a licensure compact, allowing nurses to practice across state borders, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit from other parts of the country.

Texas medical facilities can apply to the Department of State Health Services for staffers to fill a critical shortage, typically for a two-week period. But two weeks, which would allow time to respond to most disasters, hardly registers in a pandemic, so facilities have to ask for extensions or make new applications.

South Carolina last week issued an order that allows nursing graduates who have not yet completed their licensing exams to begin working under supervision. Prisma Health, the state’s biggest hospital system, said this week that the number of patients admitted to its hospitals has more than tripled in the past three weeks and is approaching 300 new patients a day.

“As the capacity increases, so does the need for additional staff,” Scott Sasser, the incident commander for Prisma Health’s covid-19 response said in a statement. Prisma has so far shifted nurses from one area to another, brought back furloughed nurses, hired more physicians and brought in temporary nurse hires, among other measures, Sasser said.

Bumpus has fielded calls from nurses all over the country — some as far afield as the United Kingdom — wanting to know how they can help. But Bumpus says she does not have an easy answer.

“I’ve had to kind of just do my own digging and use my connections,” she said. At first, she said, interested nurses were asked to register through the Texas Disaster Volunteer Registry; but then the system never seemed to be put to use.

Later she learned — “by happenstance … literally by social media” — that the state had contracted with private agencies to find nurses. So now she directs callers to those agencies.

Even rural parts of Texas that were spared initially are being ravaged by the virus, according to John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.

“Unless things start getting better in short order, we don’t have enough staff,” he acknowledged. As for filling critical staffing gaps by moving people around, “even the state admits that they can’t continue to do that,” Henderson said.

The situation has become so dire in some rural parts of the state that Judge Eloy Vera implored people to stay home on the Starr County Facebook page, warning, “Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die.”

Steven Gularte, CEO of Chambers Health in Anahuac, Tex., 45 miles from Houston, said he had to bring in 10 nurses to help staff his 14-bed hospital after Houston facilities started appealing for help to care for patients who no longer needed intensive care but were not ready to go home.

“Normally, we are referring to them,” Gularte said. “Now, they are referring to us.”

Donald M. Yealy, chair of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said rather than sending staff to other states, his hospital has helped others virtually, particularly to support pulmonary and intensive care physicians.

“Covid has been catalytic in how we think about health care,” Yealy said, providing lessons that will outlast the pandemic.

But telehealth can do little to relieve the fatigue and fear that goes with front-line work in a prolonged pandemic. Donning and doffing masks, gowns and gloves is time consuming. Nurses worry about taking the virus home to their families.

“It is high energy work with a constant grind that is hard on people,” said Michael Sweat, director of the Center for Global Health at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Coronavirus has turned the regular staffing challenge at Harris Health in Houston into a daily life-or-death juggle for Pamela Russell, associate administrator of nursing operations, who helps provide supplemental workers for the system’s two public hospitals and 46 outpatient clinics.

Now, 162 staff members — including more than 50 nurses — are quarantined, either because they tested positive or are awaiting results. Many others need flexible schedules to accommodate child care, she said. Some cannot work in coronavirus units because of their own medical conditions. A few contract nurses left abruptly after learning their units would soon be taking covid-positive patients.

Russell has turned to the state and the international nonprofit Project Hope for resources, even as she acts as a morale booster, encouraging restaurants to send meals and supporting the hospital CEO in his cheerleading rounds.

“It’s hard to say how long we can do this. I just don’t know” said Russell, who praised the commitment of the nurses. “Like I said, it’s a calling. But I don’t see it being sustainable.”