Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., claim the decision by parent company Tenet Healthcare Corp. to reduce staff amid the coronavirus pandemic is leading to subpar care.
Tenet announced in early April that it would furlough staff due to lower patient volumes as a result of the cancellation of elective procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. The furloughs wouldn't have an "impact on COVID-care or care provided to patients with other urgent medical needs," a St. Vincent spokesperson said, but the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents the hospital's 840 nurses, claims that hasn't been the case.
In mid-April, Tenet offered a furlough option for nurses at Saint Vincent and more than 50 nurses volunteered but the union claims staffing cuts have taken place this month of nurses and nurse aids. Additionally, the union claims nurses are called prior to shifts and being told by management not to come in because they aren't needed.
"We are in the middle of a pandemic. How can that be the right decision in the middle of a pandemic? I don't think we should have to plead and stomp our feet to get the proper staffing. The employers should be stepping up to do the right thing," said Marlena Pellegrino, a nurse for 30 years at the hospital who has treated COVID-19 positive patients.
More than 50 reports have been submitted to Tenet by nurses at St. Vincent this month detailing unsafe conditions for patients, according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
A St. Vincent Hospital spokesperson said the claims by the union are untrue.
"Our culture at St. Vincent Hospital is based on safety, integrity and compassionate care, and we have built every COVID-19 protocol consistent with those values," they said. "Any suggestions to the contrary are false, and we, along with our community and many (St. Vincent) nurses, struggle to understand how — in the middle of a public health emergency — the MNA could be so focused on their own agenda with a blatant disregard for the health and well-being of our Worcester families. Every action we have taken, together with the support of many of our nurses, is helping to bring us all through this crisis."
The Massachusetts Nurses Association is asking that Tenet offer more support staff at St. Vincent Hospital, especially on COVID-19 units, but conversations thus far have been unsuccessful, according to David Schildmeier, a union spokesman.
The COVID-19 floor at St. Vincent has a ratio of three patients to one nurse, which is acceptable, but there needs to be one more nurse available on the unit to lend an extra hand such as retrieving supplies and observing proper donning and doffing protocols, said Dominique Muldoon, a nurse for 18 years at the hospital who is currently treating COVID-19 patients.
Before a nurse enters a patient room, they need to put on personal protective equipment and then remove it when they leave. Many hospitals have implemented infection control personnel to observe how it's done, a process called donning and doffing, to ensure the worker does the process correctly. Furthermore, because the patients are so sick, they may need supplies the nurse didn't bring into the room like a certain medication. That's where an extra nurse, called a runner, can help, Muldoon added.
"During this pandemic, our nursing care and responsibilities have changed," she said. "We are delivering meals so we don't expose anyone needlessly, we are helping patients who are very weak and can't feed themselves so we cut up their food ... We need that extra person who can fill in when something bad is happening."
Many of the COVID-19 patients are elderly from local nursing homes and because they can't have visitors, nurses are relied on more than ever to provide comfort and support to very sick, scared patients. It's hard to offer such services without an extra hand, Pellegrino said.
"We should be in that room with our patients who are dying or maybe they are just very sick and they need someone to hold their hand," Muldoon added. "That is a very important part of nursing that is being overlooked. We shouldn't be running around just doing tasks, we should be able to do our task and treat the person as a whole person with dignity and respect."