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Bay Area Nurses Say Hospitals Underprepared For COVID-19 Crisis

Marissa Ortega Welch
A nurse holds a sign in front of Kaiser Hospital in Oakland on Monday evening. Nurses with the California Nursing Association and Nurses United are calling for more personal protective equipment.

John Pearson works in the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland. He says healthcare workers there were already experiencing critical shortages before COVID-19 existed.

"If you walk through, this is what you would see: You would see patients that should be on a cardiac monitor in a room, in the hallway, in a bed without a cardiac monitor. And there's nowhere to plug it in. And we don't have enough monitors," he says.

So an influx of COVID-19, patients, he says, is only going to make things worse. Then, there’s personal protective equipment, like masks, gloves and gowns. 

"Even though we don't have this surge of patients yet, we have this really desperate shortage of basic stuff like hand sanitizer, like disinfecting wipes. That's what we use to clean all of the equipment like dozens of times an hour," Person says.

Each time they take someone’s temperature, they need to wipe down thermometers. He says they’ve been told to water down hand sanitizer. Other nurses have told me that they've had to use patient gowns instead of their own.

"We've had bosses tell people to spray down their masks and then reuse them and breathe in the chemical fumes."

The mask shortage is widespread. There are medical students organizing mask drives, hospitals calling on people who stocked up on N95 masks during the wildfire season to hand them over. Yesterday, Governor Gavin Newsom said the state is rushing to get protective gear for workers like Pearson, trying to secure a billion gloves, millions of gowns and masks. But nurses say they also need more of each other.

"Oh, man. Where to start? So, our hospital seems grossly unprepared for all of this," says Robin Leffert a nurse at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland.

She says each week, they’re seeing more children with COVID-19 symptoms. And, she says, months before the outbreak, the hospital was understaffed.

"People were working double shifts. People were coming in on their days off. And then COVID came on and it didn't get better. Like, we were still short."

She says she finally saw her hospital post job openings for new nurses last week. San Francisco fast tracked the city’s ability to hire new nurses and over the weekend they hired 82. There are also calls from nursing students across the state asking to graduate early and join the workforce. 

Leffert and ER nurse John Pearson say the COVID-19 crisis in hospitals points to a bigger issue. 

"Our healthcare system is not set up to take care of everybody in the United States. It's just not the expectation. That's not how it works financially. It is set up to take care of anybody that can pay," Pearson says.

Leffert agrees. "When healthcare is about money making and something like this happens, then we're in serious trouble because there is no way anybody's gonna be able to profit from this. But if we look at it as health care is a human right, then there has to be the money and the resources out there somewhere for this."

She says nurses and frontline workers are doing everything they know how to do to save peoples lives and stop the spread of the virus, but they just need resources — supplies, staffing and beds — to do it effectively.