Nurses demand end to 'unacceptable' working conditions amid omicron surge

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Nurses across the country "are screaming" for safer work conditions through the record-breaking fourth surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, Renee Curtis said Thursday.

With her father sick with COVID-19, the University of Michigan emergency department nurse and president of the hospital system's nurses' union said she's had to prepare her mother for the "potential chaos" they might be faced with if her father is hospitalized. She said the current crisis is one that hospital administrations helped create. 

"We want to do our jobs," Curtis said during a virtual news conference co-organized by National Nurses United, the country's largest nurses union. "But hospitals have created a moral crisis for us because their safety standards and their staffing standards are unacceptable."

Nurses from California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Washington, D.C. joined with Curtis Thursday to urge better protection for healthcare workers from employers and local, state and federal lawmakers.

Renee Curtis, University of Michigan emergency department nurse and president of the hospital's nurse union, said staffing shortages are among the reasons nurses were being "pushed beyond their limit." At a virtual press conference co-organized by National Nurses United, Curtis joined others in calling for better working conditions for nurses across the country on Thursday, January 13, 2022.

The pleas for improved conditions come as hospitals nationally, including in Michigan, grapple with staffing and bed shortages amid the spread of the highly-contagious omicron variant of the virus and as President Joe Biden deployed more federal help to overwhelmed health systems in Michigan and a handful of other states.

Henry Ford Health System in Wyandotte will get a second round of federal help. It's the sixth hospital in Michigan to receive the staffing aid. A 30-member team from the National Disaster Medical System deployed to assist Henry Ford Wyandotte will leave on Jan. 21 and a second team from the Department of Defense will follow and aid the health system for 30 days.

Besides Wyandotte, Biden was to detail plans to send military medical staff next week to five other states — New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and New Mexico.

Curtis said layoffs made by her hospital system and others across the country since the pandemic began only served to exacerbate the problems they face. 

A spokesperson for Michigan Medicine could not immediately be reached Thursday. But in announcing staff reductions in spring 2020, Dr. Marschall S. Runge, Michigan Medicine CEO, expressed optimism that "our collective effort will result in our successfully navigating this crisis and moving forward on a path of strength and sustainability."

In Michigan, COVID-19 cases have hit record highs over the past week. On Monday, adult hospitalizations neared 4,700, the highest in the pandemic so far, according to data from the state.

John Karasinski, a spokesman for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, told The Detroit News in an email that the MHA does not comment on individual hospitals or sectors of its membership but the group and its members are working on efforts to financially reward workers and recruit new staff to ease stress on existing staffers. 

"...every single hospital in Michigan is doing everything in their power to keep their doors open to save lives and provide healthcare services to everyone in their community, all while battling a surging deadly pandemic," he said. "Staffing shortages exist in every healthcare setting right now and have been a challenge for years, prior to COVID-19."

Among the measures nurse association President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez demanded Thursday were a permanent, enforceable set of standards designed to protect healthcare workers from contracting the coronavirus by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, similar to the temporary one implemented in 2021. 

They also condemned the reduction from 10 to five days of isolation and quarantine periods recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying that allowing nurses who tested positive but are asymptomatic to return to work would risk having them infect other patients and fellow healthcare workers. 

Nurses at Curtis' hospital are being pushed beyond their limit and there are not enough of them to care for patients, she said. Patients are having to wait for many hours to be seen in the emergency room, she added. 

"The day that nurses have warned about when patients are flooding our hospitals ... and maxing out our healthcare infrastructure, when there is no nurse available to take care of you when you are the one in the hospital bed, that day is here," Triunfo-Cortez said.