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‘Nurses Over Billboards’: Two-Day Strike Hits Site of New York’s First COVID Outbreak

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Nurses at Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital struck this week over safety and staffing. 

“We’re petrified of a resurgence of COVID,” said registered nurse Kathy Santoiemma, a 43-year veteran of the hospital. “We lived through it. We were ground zero of the COVID pandemic. We had the first case in New Rochelle actually—we became a totally COVID hospital. And that’s what we did for months.” 

The city of New Rochelle, in Westchester County, was the site of New York’s first COVID-19 outbreak. Nurses at Montefiore New Rochelle worked through one of the most difficult periods of the pandemic thus far.

The recent rise in COVID-19 cases, both in New York City and throughout the United States, has nurses worried that the winter will bring a similar crisis—a situation they desperately want to avoid.

‘WE NEED MORE STAFFING’

The two-day strike on December 1-2 comes after contract negotiations between the New York State Nurses (NYSNA) and Montefiore management failed to reach an agreement. 

Nurses authorized it on November 20, with 98.4 percent voting in favor, and NYSNA issued the legally required 10-day notice to strike. Rather than meet the nurses’ demands to address a staffing shortage, increase wages, and offer health care upon retirement, Montefiore management chose to endure the strike. 

“We haven’t had a contract for two years,” said Santoiemma. “We don’t want to strike, but it’s our last resort. And the basic ask that we have is for staffing.

“We lost a lot of staff, we had staff go out because of illness. We had a nurse pass away. We had a lot of nurses leave the Montefiore New Rochelle and they have not rehired them. We don’t know what to do to get prep staff, and now nurses are leaving because our contract is so awful.” 

During the initial wave of the pandemic in the spring, the ranks of nurses at Montefiore New Rochelle were supplemented with travel nurses from around the country. Now those same nurses are needed in their home states as infection numbers reach record highs nationwide. The lack of available nurses undermines both patient and staff safety, as nurses are expected to provide the same care and attention to an ever-increasing number of patients. 

“The bottom line is we need more staffing, and we need it before everything starts to get bad, before it gets more dangerous for staff and for the patients,” said Shalon Matthews, a registered nurse in the emergency room. “It comes down to a safety issue. The hospitals are not prepared. Right now, we’re in the same position we were in, and actually we have even less staff now than we had in March and April because we’ve lost several nurses.”

There was 100 percent strike compliance among nurses. Night nurses walked out of the hospital together at 7 a.m. on December 1. Nurses from other Montefiore facilities, members of other unions, community members, and elected officials showed up in support. A urologist’s office one block away opened its bathroom to strikers. Supporters brought coffee and cookies.

NURSES OVER BILLBOARDS

Despite reporting $29.1 million in profits during the first nine months of 2020 and receiving $768.3 million in federal stimulus funds, of which $172.4 million has yet to be allocated, Montefiore management has refused to hire more nurses.

The health system recently announced a $272 million expansion at its White Plains hospital and finalized its purchase of St. John’s Hospital in Yonkers. It also spent $3.4 million on billboards thanking its staff for working during COVID-19. This contradiction has not gone unnoticed; several weeks ago nurses launched a sticker campaign, “Nurses Over Billboards.”

“Our hospital is not in a very affluent area,” said Santoiemma. “Our patients are mainly Medicare, Medicaid patients, and they don’t make a lot of money on these patients like they make in White Plains or other places that have insured patients. So of course they’re not going to invest the money in us. And they’ve even told us we have to be careful where we invest our money. So, this is a problem because our patients deserve the same care that everybody else deserves.”

In a press release before the strike, Montefiore dismissed the nurses’ concerns, claiming that “NYSNA is striking because they want the power to dictate staffing assignments and hand out plum positions to their friends, while Montefiore believes the decisions on how to treat patients and make these assignments rests not with any one group alone, but with the entire team caring for the patient.”

The hospital chose to start transferring patients to other sites even before the strike, forcing very sick patients and families to have to travel to other hospitals that were already overflowing, like Montefiore Moses in the Bronx. Nurses estimate that patient capacity was decreased by at least 30 percent. They’re worried about their patients and know that the hospital could have chosen to hire agency nurses for two days.

‘WE WERE THE ONES IN THERE’

For veteran nurses, the obstinance of Montefiore management reveals an embarrassing lack of integrity and concern for those the hospital supposedly exists to serve. 

“We were the ones in there during COVID,” Santoiemma said. “Everybody else was in their locked offices or wherever they were. And we were the only ones there. We were the ones that were the patient’s families, we were the ones that were the patient’s priests, we were the ones that did everything for the patients, and it’s pathetic that this is how they would treat us.”

NYSNA nurses in Albany also struck on December 1. Two thousand nurses there are fighting for a first contract at Albany Medical Center over similar issues: staffing concerns during the pandemic and management’s disregard of personal protective equipment standards to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among nurses and patients.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 3, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kris Parker is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer.


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As Covid Surges, Doctors Are Striking Against “Retail Health”

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We’re back with Sea­son Four of Work­ing Peo­ple! In this urgent episode, we talk with Dr. Amir Atabey­gi, a physi­cian at Mul­ti­Care Indi­go Urgent Care in Thurston Coun­ty, Wash­ing­ton. On Novem­ber 23, amid a ter­ri­fy­ing surge in COVID-19 cas­es around the coun­try, Dr. Atabey­gi joins his fel­low physi­cians, physi­cian assis­tants, and advanced reg­is­tered nurse prac­ti­tion­ers on the pick­et line as they strike for the basic safe­ty mea­sures their employ­er refus­es to pro­vide. We talk to Dr. Atabey­gi about what he and his cowork­ers face on the job, the rise of ?“retail health” com­pa­nies like Mul­ti­Care Health Sys­tems, and the grow­ing labor con­scious­ness of tra­di­tion­al­ly non-union­ized health­care workers.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Pandemic on course to overwhelm U.S. health system before Biden takes office

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The United States’ surging coronavirus outbreak is on pace to hit nearly 1 million new cases a week by the end of the year — a scenario that could overwhelm health systems across much of the country and further complicatePresident-elect Joe Biden’s attempts to coordinate a response.

Biden, who is naming his own coronavirus task force Monday, has pledged to confront new shortages of protective gear for health workers and oversee distribution of masks, test kits and vaccines while beefing up contact tracing and reengaging with the World Health Organization. He will also push Congress to pass a massive Covid-19 relief package and pressure the governors who’ve refused to implement mask mandates for new public health measures as cases rise.

But all of those actions — a sharp departure from the Trump administration’s patchwork response that put the burden on states— will have to wait until Biden takes office. Congress, still feeling reverberations from the election, may opt to simply run out the clock on its legislative year. Meanwhile, the virus is smashing records for new cases and hospitalizations as cold weather drives gatherings indoors and people make travel plans for the approaching holidays.

If you want to have a better 2021, then maybe the rest of 2020 needs to be an investment in driving the virus down,” said Cyrus Shahpar, a former emergency response leader at the CDC who now leads the outbreak tracker Covid Exit Strategy. “Otherwise we’re looking at thousands and thousands of deaths this winter.”

The country’s health care system is already buckling under the load of the resurgent outbreak that’s approaching 10 million cases nationwide. The number of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 has spiked to 56,000, up from 33,000 one month ago. In many areas of the country, shortages of ICU beds and staff are leaving patients piled up in emergency rooms. And nearly 1,100 people died on Saturday alone, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

“That’s three jetliners full of people crashing and dying,” said David Eisenman, director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters. “And we will do that every day and then it will get more and more.”

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts 370,000 Americans will be dead by Inauguration Day, exactly one year after the first U.S. case of Covid-19 was reported. Nearly 238,000 have already died.

The task force Biden announces Monday will be staffed with public health experts and former government officials, many of whom ran agencies duringthe Obama and Clinton administrations — including former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, New York University’s Dr. Celine Gounder, Yale’s Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, former Obama White House aide Dr. Zeke Emanuel and former Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita, who is now an executive vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Shahpar said that even before Biden takes control of government in January, he and his team can make a difference by breaking with Trump’s declarations that the virus is “going away,” communicating the severity of the virus’ spread and encouraging people to take precautions as winter approaches.

“There’s been a misalignment between the reality on the ground and what our leaders are telling us,” he said. “Hopefully now those things will come closer together.”

But Shahpar and other experts warn thateven if Biden and his task force start promoting public health measures now, it will take weeks to see a reduction in hospitalizations and deaths —even if states clamp down. And there is little indication that the country will drastically change its behavior in the near term.

Some governors in the Northeast, which was hit hard early in the pandemic, are imposing new restrictions. In the last week, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island activated nightly stay-at-home orders and ordered businesses to close by 10 p.m. And Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills on Thursday ordered everyone to wear a mask in public, even if they can maintain social distance.

But in the Dakotas and other states where the virus is raging, governors are resisting calls from health experts to mandate masks and restrict gatherings. On Sunday morning, South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem incorrectly attributed her state’s huge surge in cases to an increase in testing and praised Trump’s approach of giving her the “flexibility to do the right thing.” The state has no mask mandate.

And unlike earlier waves in the spring and summer that were confined to a handful of states or regions, the case numbers are now surging everywhere.

In New Mexico, the number of people in the hospital has nearly doubled in just the last two weeks and state officials said Thursday that they expect to run out of general hospital beds in a matter of days.

“November is going to be really rough on all of us,” said Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — a contender to lead the Department of Health and Human Services in Biden’s administration. “There’s nothing we can do, nothing, that will change the trajectory. … It is too late to dramatically reduce the number of deaths. November is done.”

Minnesota officials said last week that ICU beds in the Twin Cities metro area were 98 percent full, and in El Paso, Texas, the county morgue bought another refrigerated trailer to deal with the swelling body count.

“We had patients stacking up in our ER,” Jeffrey Sather, the chief of staff at Trinity Health in North Dakota said during a news conference last week. “The normal process is we call around to the larger hospitals and ask them to accept our patients. We found no other hospitals that could care for our patients.”

An “ensemble” forecast used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — based on the output of several independent models — projects that the country could see as many as 11,000 deaths and 960,000 cases per week by the end of the month. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory suggest that the U.S. will record another 6 million infections and 45,000 deaths over the next six weeks, while a team at Cal Tech predicts roughly 1,000 people will die of Covid-19 every day this month — with more than 260,000 dead by Thanksgiving. The University of Washington model forecasts 259,000 Americans dead by Thanksgiving and 313,000 dead by Christmas.

Eisenman predicted that by January, the United States could see infection rates as high as those seen during the darkest days of the pandemic in Europe — 200,000 new cases per day.

“Going into Thanksgiving people are going to start to see family and get together indoors,” he said. “Then the cases will spread from that and then five weeks later we have another set of holidays and people will gather then and by January, we will be exploding with cases.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Goldberg is a health care reporter for POLITICO Pro covering health care politics and policy in the states. He previously covered New York State health care for POLITICO New York.


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