Nurses battling virus on front lines in understaffed hospitals: A brave nurse speaks out

Nurses protesting lack of protective equipment at Largo Medical Center. Credit: National Nurses United

Millicent Bowerbank, a registered nurse in Miami, has been providing nonstop care for COVID-19 patients without a break at times during graveyard shifts, because there aren’t enough trained nurses to care for people infected with the coronavirus.

“I have experience where I cried because I was in this isolation area from about 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. asking for relief at 4 a.m. to go to the bathroom, but nobody came to assist me,” Bowerbank said in a telephone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

“None of them [her colleagues at the time] were trained to support the nurse [meaning Bowerbank] that was taking care of these patients,” she said. “I couldn’t get the help I needed.”

Bowerbank works at a V.A. hospital that is understaffed during the pandemic and is a member of the National Nurses United, a large nationwide union representing registered nurses.

The union helped the Florida Phoenix find a nurse — Bowerbank — willing to share her experiences to the public, putting a face on one of the grimmest jobs in the country and the world as the pandemic continues. The union and Bowerbank did not disclose the precise hospital where she works, for fear of retaliation.

Bowerbank recalled how confused health care workers were at the onset of COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals. They didn’t know how people were becoming infected as an influx of sick people arrived at hospitals, Bowerbank said.

“In my area, where I work, I know at the beginning most people were scared not knowing what to expect, if they were going to come down with this illness,” she said.

“It’s a novel virus, so we didn’t know everything. But one thing we learned earlier is that we can get it through our nose, eyes, and mouth.”

Sixty-four deaths

According to a May 2019 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 181,670 registered nurses work in various health care settings in Florida. That report shows nearly 3 million registered nurses employed in the United States.

They are among many health care workers battling the serious disease on the front lines, resulting in infections and fatalities. As of April, at least 64 nurses nationwide have died of COVID-19, according to the National Nurses United.

Bowerbank said that a nurse at one of the Community Living Centers, which are V.A. nursing homes, was infected while caring for a patient. And hospital supervisors have not shared much information about infection rates among staff.

“The management didn’t inform us about how many of our workers were infected; they [hid] that information from us, and that I didn’t like,” she said. “We should know, that would help us also to assess our situation and take better caution.”

Meanwhile, shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) forces nurses to reuse face masks.

Obtaining enough masks, gowns, gloves, and other protective equipment has been a problem in health care facilities nationwide, with nurses forced to recycle protective gear to treat patients.

Many nurses are afraid to speak out about the situation because of hospital policies, said Willa Fuller, executive director of the Florida Nurses Association. To protect their families and loved ones against the potentially deadly disease, some nurses are staying in hotels.

“We have a couple in trouble right now because of statements they made and social media posts about PPE shortages,” Fuller said in an email to the Phoenix.

Face masks being reused

Nurses and other health care workers have reported using face masks for several days and storing them in paper bags with their names written on them, Fuller added.

“Some have also reported sanitizing masks by hanging them in the sun or under UV light. This situation is not ideal, and we support protecting our health care workers and patients as well as the greater community where these health care workers reside,” Fuller said.

Meanwhile, federal health authorities have approved the reuse of the N95 mask, also known as the N95 respirator, for health care workers because of limited supplies.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the N95 respirator is the most common type of respirators that filter “at least 95 percent of airborne particles but is not resistant to oil.”

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces health regulations in the workplace, has announced “that employers may consider reuse of N95 respirators” if other types of approved respirators aren’t available.

However, OSHA hasn’t released any guidance on reusing N95 respirators, the National Nurses United said. The union released a document called “FAQ on Reuse of N95 Respirators,” offering its members detailed information on protective face shields and denouncing OSHA’s new safety policy.

“Employers will not be cited for violating respiratory protection standards so long as they adhere to CDC guidance. This deference is irresponsible and fails to protect nurses and other health care workers from COVID-19,” the document states.

Putting pressure on OSHA

In March, National Nurses United sent a letter to U.S. Department of Labor officials, urging OSHA to use its powers and enforce certain workplace protections for all health care workers.

“OSHA should pass an emergency temporary standard to require health care employers to provide protections during an emerging infectious disease event like COVID-19,” the union wrote.

And as of May, National Nurses United is still “pressuring” OSHA to take action on the emergency temporary standard, a spokeswoman told the Phoenix.

“Here in Florida, we have nothing, we have no standards at all,” said Rich Templin, political director for the Florida AFL-CIO, which is fighting for public service employees including nurses.

OSHA is authorized “to set emergency temporary standards that take effect immediately and are in effect until superseded by a permanent standard,” according to its website.

The agency must then “determine that workers are in grave danger due to exposure to toxic substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or to new hazards and that an emergency standard is needed to protect them.”

Fuller, of the Florida Nurses Association, said, “While nurses fulfill their duty to care every day, we hope that key leaders are working diligently to make sure they have the tools they need to deliver care in a safe manner.”