Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal for Monday, April 20, 2020.
Union says dangerous work guidelines and protective gear shortages helped spread Covid-19 among nurses, their families and patients
by Shalini Ramachandran
The New York State Nurses Association filed three lawsuits against the state and two hospital systems on Monday, alleging that dangerous work guidelines and protective gear shortages exacerbated the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The state’s largest nurses’ union filed suit against the New York Department of Health in New York County Supreme Court, charging that it failed to ensure that health-care employees had enough safety equipment, including N95 respirators and fluid-resistant gowns.
The union, which has 42,000 members, also said that the department forced sick nurses to come back to work too soon, turning hospitals into “petri dishes” and putting the public at risk.
The union also filed suits against Montefiore Medical Center and Westchester County Health Care Corp., the parent company of Westchester Medical Center.
The union called the hospitals a “war zone,” claiming that both rationed gear and failed to test the fit of workers’ masks or to properly ventilate Covid-19 patients’ areas.
NYSNA filed the suit against Montefiore in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Its suit against WCHCC is filed in Westchester County Supreme Court.
A spokesman for New York’s health department said the state “continues to take every step necessary” to ensure health-care workers “have the support and supplies needed to address this unprecedented public health emergency.”
In a statement, a spokesman for the Westchester hospital system said “the allegations in NYSNA’s lawsuit are wrong” and that “our focus is, and has always been, protecting our workforce.”
A spokeswoman for Montefiore didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that many workers in the Montefiore system were angry with the hospital, saying it didn’t take seriously early alarm bells and hadn’t done enough to protect staff and patients against transmission of the virus.
The NYSNA lawsuits mark one of the first collective legal actions of health-care workers against major hospital administrations and a state government over their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
They come after Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Saturday said that it appears New York is “past the plateau and we are starting to descend,” with the total number of Covid-19 patients hospitalized below 17,000, compared with about 18,000 at peak.
Still, 2,000 people tested positive and were admitted to New York hospitals on Friday, about the same number as in late March.
Part of the reason the union decided to sue was that it found the New York health department wasn’t enforcing a recent guideline from the governor’s office requiring hospitals to give health workers a new N95 mask daily if they asked for it, said Patricia Kane, NYSNA’s executive director.
The union says that many of its nurses have fallen sick after reusing masks and other protective gear for days and have in turn also infected family members.
At least 11 NYSNA nurses have died so far from Covid-19, 84 are hospitalized and 954 have tested positive—numbers that likely underreport the true impact, the union said.
In affidavits, many nurses described working conditions that made them feel unsafe at hospital systems including Montefiore, Northwell Health and Westchester Medical Center. Northwell wasn’t a party to any of the lawsuits.
Cristal Torres, a nurse at Northwell’s Staten Island University Hospital, said in an affidavit she had to use her N95 mask for a week and store it in a brown paper bag in a “bin filled with other N95 respirators,” without any protocols for sanitizing them.
Ms. Torres eventually tested positive for the virus and says her daughter has also fallen ill. Hospital administrators told her to use her own sick days for leave, she said, and “strongly encouraged” her to return to work after seven days, even though she continued to experience symptoms.
Terence Lynam, a Northwell Health spokesman, said the company strongly disputes that claim and said confirmed Covid-positive employees are eligible for up to 14 days of paid leave.
“We would never force an employee to return to work if they were still symptomatic,” said Mr. Lynam.
Northwell has “consistently put the safety of its team members and the patients we serve as the highest priority throughout this crisis,” Mr. Lynam said.
The union wants the state to change a directive allowing hospitals to call back sick workers after seven days, which it said has resulted in potentially contagious and symptomatic nurses coming back to work and putting others at risk.
Nurses who test positive should get at least 14 days of paid sick leave, NYSNA said, in accordance with another New York state law that offers the same for workers at large companies.