Jim Gentile is haunted by patients who died alone. A surgical nurse at St Mary’s Medical Center in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, his hospital was quickly overwhelmed during the first wave of the pandemic this spring, he said. He described racing between patients only to find that one was quietly suffocated while waiting for help.
He said he packed more patients in body bags in the first two months of the pandemic than he had had in the previous 25 years. On Tuesday, he and 700 other nurses went on strike at the medical center after saying they were poorly compensated and short-staffed despite everything they had to deal with as the virus swings again.
“Many of us have PTSD and many of us just want to sob on the way home,” he said. “And then ten hours later we had to get back on the horse and do it again.”
Gentile and his colleagues are the latest in a wave of health workers – from Washington DC to New York to California – to protest low wages, understaffing and PPE shortages during the pandemic.
An addition to their challenges is the politicization of Covid-19. Dozens of states have been slow to implement mask mandates and other public health measures that could slow the spread of the virus, and health professionals have reported cases of patients believing the disease is a scam even though they were intubated. In North Dakota, nurses infected with the virus who showed no symptoms were asked to continue working due to staff shortages.
“Nurses are completely burned out by this,” said Deborah Burger, a registered nurse and co-president of National Nurses United. “We have normalized this crisis. We are staffing [hospitals] as if there were normal times and it is not. Nurses who had one, say [patient] code per shift now sees it explode where there are more codes going on. And it requires a toll. ”
The risks they face are significant. Lost on the Frontline, a joint investigation by the Guardian and Kaiser Health News, has identified nearly 1,400 frontline health workers who appear to have died of Covid-19. Nearly a third of these workers were nurses. Many more health professionals struggle with illness, trauma and exhaustion.
Gentile said he has heard criticism of nurses overturning when their patients need them most. “Everyone is thinking,” Nurses are selfish. Why are they doing this now with a pandemic? ‘”He said. He said he and his colleagues begged administrators to renegotiate over the summer as the east coast enjoys a short respite from counts, and to hire more staff. The nurses say they get paid less than the regional average.
Nurses said that St. Mary had a turnover rate of 30%, with 243 of their colleagues leaving the last two years alone, although representatives from the administration say the turnover rate is lower.
Gentile and his colleagues blame the lack of staff and an administration that “underestimates” the nurses.
The fact that Gentile and his colleagues are part of a union gives them some protection against retaliation. But other workers who have protested against precarious conditions have had serious consequences. In March, four Detroit nurses expressing concern about understaffing and lack of equipment lost their jobs for allegedly violating their hospital’s social media policy. A Chicago nurse was removed from the hospital schedule after sending an email to colleagues urging them to use more personal protection than the hospital available.
Administrators who brought a fleet of travel nurses to replace the striking workers until Sunday morning, when Gentile and others expect to return, had not responded to union demands from Friday afternoon. The hospital issued a statement saying it “remains committed to negotiating in good faith” and that its administrators are making sure to maintain “appropriate staffing levels”.
Although it is unclear whether the strike will bring about immediate political change, Gentile said he was encouraged by the solidarity shown by his colleagues, by new virus treatments and by the prospect of a vaccine being just around the corner.
But his optimism is dampened by the steady increase in cases at his hospital. “We still have four or five months left of this,” he said.