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Low pay and supply shortages have frontline nurses begging for relief

Dana Horton, a registered nurse at the Atlanta VA Medical Center and a representative of National Nurses United’s Atlanta chapter, protests with a handful of other nurses outside the Decatur hospital on Friday. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Dana Horton, a registered nurse at the Atlanta VA Medical Center and a representative of National Nurses United’s Atlanta chapter, protests with a handful of other nurses outside the Decatur hospital on Friday. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

If supply shortages weren’t forcing her to put her family’s health in danger, Sholanda Curry said she’d gladly be working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic as an intensive care unit nurse.

Instead, she works with a daily fear that she’ll become infected and pass the disease along to her husband and two children. So on Friday, Curry spent her lunch break standing outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center where she works, holding up a sign for passing cars that said, “Protect Nurses, Patients, Public Health.”

She and the dozen or so other nurses and supporters were taking part in a protest organized by the National Nurses United union. They said the VA isn’t giving them ample protective gear, particularly N95 respirators. Amid a national supply shortage, they’re being ordered to ration and recycle, which puts them at risk for contracting the disease.

“You feel unsafe taking care of the patients,” Curry said, still dressed in her blue work scrubs and speaking through a paper surgical mask. “We ask and we ask, and it feels as if no one cares.”

Wearing surgical masks and holding up placards, about a dozen nurses and their supporters staged a protest Friday along Clairmont Road outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center. The group said the VA is rationing masks and protective gear amid a national supply shortage, putting employees’ health at risk by forcing them to reuse the same masks for days or weeks. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Wearing surgical masks and holding up placards, about a dozen nurses and their supporters staged a protest Friday along Clairmont Road outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center. The group said the VA is rationing masks and protective gear amid a national supply shortage, putting employees’ health at risk by forcing them to reuse the same masks for days or weeks. Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The group of placard-toting demonstrators along Decatur’s Clairmont Road was just one sign of growing discontent among Georgia’s nurses. They already work for low pay compared to counterparts elsewhere in the nation, and in the past month and a half, nurses and other healthcare workers have been ordered by health system administrators to take pay cuts, conserve protective gear and keep quiet about their predicaments.

But as infections surge in the next few weeks, nurses will be sorely needed. As many as 3,000 coronavirus patients could be hospitalized on the peak day, May 1.

Meanwhile, national staffing agencies have been luring nurses to the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic in New York and New Jersey, offering pay rates of as much as $10,000 per week, with perks including free airfare, free hotel rooms and free Starbucks coffee. So efforts are now underway to keep nurses in Georgia and keep them happy.

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On Thursday the Georgia Nurses Association asked Gov. Brian Kemp to take steps to prevent the state from losing nurses and other critical medical workers ahead of the surge. President Richard Lamphier asked the governor to team up with the association to offer $250 in non-taxable hazard pay every two weeks to front line nurses, EMTs, paramedics and hospital and nursing home support staff.

“While many Georgia citizens do their best to express their deepest appreciation through nightly rounds of applause that echo through Midtown Atlanta and display make-shift ‘Thank You’ signs across rural Georgia, more can be done,” Lamphier’s letter to Kemp said.

Lamphier estimated the program, which would be retroactive to March 1 and last through June, would cost about $15 million and would pay thousands of front line workers. A spokeswoman for Kemp said the proposal is under review.

While the program could give the VA nurses a pay bump — assuming it’s tailored to apply to federal employees — it won’t solve their safety predicament. Over the coming weeks they expect to be taking in non-veteran patients if other Georgia hospitals fill beyond their capacities.
In a protest organized by the National Nurses United union, a group of nurses and their supporters held up signs for passing cars outside of the Atlanta VA Medical Center on Friday. One sign said, “Say no to 1 mask/week.” Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In a protest organized by the National Nurses United union, a group of nurses and their supporters held up signs for passing cars outside of the Atlanta VA Medical Center on Friday. One sign said, “Say no to 1 mask/week.” Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

One nurse who has been working among sick and dying coronavirus patients said she has been using the same N95 mask for two weeks. Curry, the intensive care unit nurse, said the VA lacks small-sized N95s that fit most women’s faces. One nurse held up a sign to passing cars that said, “Say no to 1 mask/week.”

A statement from the Atlanta VA on Friday said the facility has enough essential supplies to last 30 days or more and, in accordance with CDC guidelines, is doling out personal protective equipment to staff based on their responsibilities and potential for exposure.

“We were told, if you’re not facing a COVID-19 patient or veteran, we get one mask per week,” registered nurse Dene Bellamy said Friday. “The thing is, we don’t know who’s infected coming through that door. They’re checking people’s temperature, but you can be asymptomatic and still be infected.”

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