Jim Gentil is being persecuted by patients who have died alone. A surgical nurse at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Langhorn, Pennsylvania, his hospital was quickly overloaded during the first wave of the pandemic this spring, he said. He described competitions between patients, only to find that a person had suffocated quietly while waiting for help.
He said he had wrapped more patients in body bags in the first two months of the pandemic than in the past 25 years. On Tuesday, he and 700 other nurses at the medical center went on strike after saying they were poorly compensated and short-staffed, despite everything they had to deal with as the virus rose again.
“A lot of us have PTSD and a lot of us would just sob on the way home,”
Gentile and his colleagues are the latest in a wave of health workers – from Washington to New York, to California – to protest low pay, staff shortages and PPE shortages during the pandemic.
Adding to their challenges is the politicization of Covid-19. Dozens of countries are slowly implementing mandates and other public health measures that could slow the spread of the virus, and health workers are reporting cases of patients who believe the disease is a scam, even when they have been intubated. In North Dakota, nurses infected with the virus who show no symptoms were asked to continue working amid a shortage of staff.
“The nurses are completely burned out by this,” said Deborah Burger, a registered nurse and co-chair of National Nurses United. “We have normalized this crisis. We are completing [hospitals] as if there were normal times and it is not so. Nurses who used to have, say, one [patient] shift code now see that explode where there are multiple codes. And that takes a fee. “
The risks they face are significant. Lost on the front line, a joint investigation by the Guardian and Kaiser Health News has identified nearly 1,400 frontline health workers who appear to have died from Covid-19. Almost a third of these workers are nurses. Many more health workers are struggling with illness, injury and exhaustion.
Gentile said he had heard criticism of nurses picketing when their patients needed them most. “Everyone thinks, ‘Nurses are selfish. Why are they doing this now with a pandemic? “, He said. He said he and his colleagues had called on administrators to renegotiate in the summer, when the East Coast enjoys a short break from the large number of cases, and to hire more staff. The nurses say they are paid less than the regional average.
Nurses said St. Mary’s had a turnover rate of 30%, with 243 of their colleagues leaving in the last two years alone, although administration officials said the turnover rate was lower.
Gentile and his colleagues blame the lack of staff and the administration, which “underestimates” its nurses.
The fact that Gentile and his colleagues are part of the union offers them some protection from revenge. But other workers who have protested the dangerous conditions face serious consequences. In March, four Detroit nurses, who expressed concerns about staff shortages and equipment shortages, lost their jobs as they reportedly violated the hospital’s social network policy. A Chicago nurse was taken off her hospital schedule after sending an email to colleagues urging them to use more PPE than the hospital provides.
Administrators who brought in a fleet of nurses to replace the striking workers until Sunday morning, when Gentile and others are expected to return, had not responded to the union’s demands Friday afternoon. The hospital issued a statement saying it “remains committed to bargaining in good faith” and that its administrators take care to maintain “appropriate levels of staff.”
Although it is unclear whether the strike will lead to immediate policy changes, Gentile said he was encouraged by the solidarity his colleagues have shown, new viral treatments and the prospect of a vaccine approaching.
But his optimism has been dampened by the steady rise in his hospital cases. “We have four or five months left,” he said.