As Upstate hospitals announce staffing cuts, CVPH works with NYSNA to redeploy nurses to epicenter of COVID-19 crisis
New York State – Hospitals in New York City are at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and have experienced a surge of COVID-19 patients since March 8. Downstate hospitals continue to struggle with staffing enough nurses to meet the demand in patient care. At the same time, the estimated surge of COVID-19 patients is expected to peak later in Upstate New York — late May through early June  — and several Upstate hospital systems have recently announced staffing cuts.
In explaining why NYSNA is launching a new program, the Upstate COVID-19 Nurse Corps, Executive Director Pat Kane, RN, said, “Nurses want to do everything they can to slow the spread of COVID-19 and do what they do best — care for patients. We want to make it possible for them to go where the need is greatest.”
Since sending an e-mail out to Upstate members on April 11 about the Upstate COVID-19 Nurses Corps, more than 120 have volunteered to travel to NYC to assist with the COVID surge.
Nurses at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital (CVPH) in Plattsburgh are some of the first nurses to answer the call. The hospital is now partnering with NYSNA to send nurses from Plattsburgh to NYC in phased stages, in a show of solidarity in the fight to stop COVID-19. The first nurses are starting at Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC) on Tuesday, May 5.
“I asked CVPH earlier for a leave of absence to go to New York City to help, but was denied,” said Cassie Stanley, RN. “We’ve been preparing for the surge Upstate, but too many nurses are on hold, which makes no sense when people so desperately need help. When I saw the email about the Upstate COVID Nurse Corps, I was excited because if I were in that situation, I would want my fellow nurses to come help out, too. I’m comfortable with new challenges and feel eager to start. ”
“I’ve been a nurse for about a year — no one really prepares you for a pandemic,” said Caitlin McNulty-Bletard, RN. “I’ve been working full-time in the Med-Surg and Oncology unit, but when I saw what was happening Downstate, I felt compelled to help. That’s part of the reason I became a nurse — to help. I’m so thankful for the nurses in NYC. What they’ve done is nothing short of heroic, and I looking forward to working alongside them.”
In addition to doing their part to address the COVID-19 crisis, Upstate hospitals would see payroll savings by participating in the Upstate COVID Nurse Corps. Nurses would gain the training and experience to deal with COVID patients, which will soon be of critical importance Upstate. The Upstate economy would also benefit from having skilled, well-paid professional nurses remain employed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of the Upstate COVID-19 Nurse Corps, Upstate hospitals will guarantee employment and continued health insurance coverage for nurses who volunteer downstate. New York City hospitals, including Brooklyn Hospital, Interfaith Medical Center, Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, Wyckoff Heights Medical Center and Richmond University Medical Center, have agreed to pay per diem salaries for Upstate nurses working in their facilities. NYSNA will assist New York State with coordinating food, travel and accommodation for Upstate nurses, and the State will cover the costs. Nurses do not need to be furloughed or laid off to participate in the program. For many small community and safety net hospitals, this program could not come at a better time.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we converted two of our units into the COVID unit, and I’ve been working there ever since,” said Maria Zaharescu, RN, from RUMC. “We are really excited to get the help, because we are often working short staffed and have not been able to take any holidays or vacation days, so it’s very tiring. As a float nurse, I understand that it can be scary when you first come into a new department, but we have a good team here to orient and support our Upstate nurses.”
NYSNA urged Albany Medical Center to participate in lieu of benching hundreds of nurses, but the Administration declined.
“When I was informed that I was being placed on ‘standby leave,’ the following day I signed up to volunteer my services for re-deployment to NYC as part of New York’s ServNY initiative,” said Terri Henry, RN, and Operating Room nurse at Albany Medical Center. “As an RN, I believe it is incumbent for us to respond to any healthcare crisis. Being at home awaiting a phone call to return to work in lieu of responding to the call of duty elicited feelings of frustration and hopelessness. My hope is that Albany Medical Center will recognize the fundamental urgency for statewide collaboration in our mission to combat this pandemic, and temporarily release nurses who want to volunteer downstate. After all, we are all in this together.”
Elective surgeries, which are a major revenue generator for hospitals, have been cancelled in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, but are expected to resume in some places in early May. Hospitals have pointed to this loss of revenue as the rationale for making large scale staffing cuts.
At the same time, hospitals are supposed to be preparing to expand capacity for the COVID surge. New York State hospitals have been allocated more than $1.8 billion in federal stimulus funds to support their operations.
“We object to any furloughing or calling off any nurse during a pandemic, because it puts our communities at unnecessary risk,” said NYSNA Board Member Marion Enright, RN of Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville, NY. “We think the Upstate COVID-19 Nurse Corps will be a better alternative, and will help our hospitals respond to the COVID-19 crisis in a more unified and effective way.”
The New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) represents more than 42,000 members in New York State. We are New York’s largest union and professional association for registered nurses. For more information, please visit nysna.org.
 Calculated per instructions from HHS https://www.hhs.gov/provider-relief/index.html