Unionized nurses held a town hall with New York U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand about the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The New York State Nurses Association organized the Wednesday night call with New York’s junior Senator.
Nurses from across the state shared their experiences in the front-line fight against COVID-19. They questioned the Democrat about what she will do to address shortcomings in the government’s response to the virus.
Kelly Cabrera is a registered nurse at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, one of the hardest hit hospitals in the country.
“What can you do to help establish OSHA protections for COVID-19 and ensure that the CDC will return to established scientific standards during future surges? Because we know, at least on the front line, that hasn’t been happening,” said Cabrera.
Gillibrand explained that she is co-sponsor of a bill to require the Department of Labor to establish emergency and permanent standards to protect workers from coronavirus.
“I am co-sponsor of the COVID-19 Healthcare Worker Protection Act of 2020, which would require OSHA to ensure healthcare facilities have infection control plans to protect frontline health workers from exposure to infectious diseases. I’ve also called on the Trump administration to provide transparency into how health equipment and PPE are being allocated,” said Gillibrand.
Gillibrand is a supporter of the HEROES Act. The package of legislation that passed along party lines in the House faces uncertainty in the Republican-controlled Senate. The act would provide hazard pay for healthcare and other frontline workers.
Several of the nurses on the call brought up PPE shortages they experienced. Anthony Ciampa, a registered nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital and first Vice President of NYSNA, complained of unequal distribution of federal relief aid.
“For example, New York University’s Langone Medical Center, one of the richest hospitals in the country, received over $295 million in the CARES Act. While a Brooklyn hospital, a safety net hospital that was severely hard hit by COVID-19, only got $43 million. NYU received more money than the entire 11-hospital public system in New York City,” said Ciampa.
Gillibrand blamed the Trump Administration for how emergency funding was distributed.
“Every time we ask for money to be distributed where it’s needed, we watch FEMA and we watch the administration send it to where their political allies are. So hospitals in Georgia and Alabama might have everything they need plus some, and the hospitals in New York have not nearly enough,” said Gillibrand.
Grievances did not just stem from nurses in the New York City area, but also in the Capital Region.
Albany Medical Center nurse Patty Pinho claimed her co-workers were unnecessarily put out of work as the hospital responded to COVID-19.
“The hospital calls it a labor pool but what it boils down to is a way for them to save money and not call it a layoff, when we should be preparing for a surge here in the Capital Region. Not only were workers denied unemployment benefits, which will ripple economically across distressed communities, but we missed the chance to train nurses in the critical care that many COVID patients need. Several of us even volunteered to go down to New York City as part of the union Upstate Nurse COVID Corps, but Albany Med would not let us go.”
Gillibrand responded by saying there needs to be pushback on the hospitals laying off staff.
“Because what they’re trying to do is save money because they don’t want to go out of business because they have no paying patients. But the reality is, if you are laying off our first responders, they’re not going to be there when you need them,” said Gillibrand.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, hospitals in New York were required to restrict elective surgeries in order to keep a certain number of beds available for a possible surge in coronavirus patients.
Albany Medical Center said it has not furloughed any of its staff members .
The hospital said in an email that anyone placed on “standby leave” receives full pay and benefits and is asked to stay at home, but to remain on call to return to work within 24 hours.
The email says in part:
“Due to the prevalence of COVID-19 in the New York City area, any staff member who travels there is placed under quarantine for 14 days to protect our workforce and patients. Therefore, a nurse who travels to the New York City area is unable to care for patients for 14 days.”
With the balance of power in Washington up for grabs this November, the former Democratic presidential candidate closed the call by detailing her support for emergency Medicaid coverage for anyone in need during the pandemic, and the future establishment of a public option for health insurance by allowing people to buy into Medicare. That, she said, would allow the U.S. to move toward a Medicare-for-all system.