nurses protest

Intensive Care COVID Unit nurse Cassandra Callaway speaks during a press conference and action called, “To protest unsafe patient care conditions for patients and the extraordinarily high number of RNs infected at work during this COVID-19 pandemic,” outside of UChicago Medicine’s Duchossois Center. 

The nurses union at the University of Chicago Medical Center says its members are exhausted and being put into intensive care units (ICUs) without adequate training, weeks into the coronavirus pandemic that has infected 33 nurses at the hospital.

Some dozen nurses participated in a rally at shift change Friday morning outside of the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine, 5758 S. Maryland Ave., where critical care nurse Cassandra Callaway said her colleagues have worked "around-the-clock in grim conditions for weeks … above our call of duty."

"Due to the large number of call-offs from support staff and engineering controls put in place to contain the spread of the virus, we have been given the responsibilities of cleaning, restocking ever-dwindling supplies and emptying garbage, including overflow of dirty needle bins," she said. "We are charged with acting as dietary, pharmacy, (environmental services), linen and lift team for the COVID units. Our faces are bruised and blistered from nonstop use of masks of all kinds. We go hoarse from our inability to hydrate, since we are instructed to conserve PPE, and our need to yell through masks to be able to heard in normal conversation."

"You can call us heroes, but we feel like martyrs," Callaway said. "We appreciate everything the medical center is doing to help us take care of our patients, but there remain serious concerns about unequal staffing." She said there are reserve nurses available to work but that the administration has not engaged them.

While an April 21 letter the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United union sent to UCMC Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer Emily Chase called for nurses to be paid pandemic pay, Callaway could not answer a question asking for specifics about what hazard pay the nurses wanted.

In a statement, UCMC spokeswoman Lorna Wong said the union is seeking to renegotiate its 2019-ratified contract during the pandemic and that the UCMC's "chief labor negotiator responded immediately, but the union indicated it preferred to protest."

Callaway said in turn that the UCMC administration turned down a union offer to help with planning and deployment. She said additional staff is needed as more ICUs open and that nurses who have not worked in critical care for a decade or more are being redeployed to emergency departments or ICUs after a day of orientation.

"Our COVID patients are sicker than we have ever had to deal with before. They are highly unpredictable and unstable," she said, adding that it takes time to learn ICU logistics and protocols. "Multiple machines are required to manage these patients. We demand not only better staffing but adequate training, orientation and resources."

Wong said Chase has held 20 daily town hall meetings with nurses "to provide up-to-date information, receive feedback and respond to clinical questions and needs;" Callaway said the union received no response to an invitation for Chase to meet with COVID nurses.

While the union's letter said non-COVID nurses are getting sick from exposure to asymptomatic patients and those suspected of having the coronavirus, necessitating "essential PPE to nurses on every unit" to prevent the disease's spread to non-COVID patients, Wong said the UCMC is continuing to buy PPE and meets or exceeds PPE guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Illinois and Chicago health authorities.

"In addition, there are dedicated EVS staff members in areas dealing directly with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients to ensure support for medical staff and to limit the spread of the virus," Wrong wrote. She also said redeployed nurses could request additional time to prepare after their refresher training.

As of April 22, there were 137 patients with COVID-19 at the UCMC, 95 suspected of having the disease and 27 on ventilators. 

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