Hide Caption Mission nurses continue to protestNurses, support staff, and community members protested unsafe conditions at Mission Hospital on January 13, 2022.Maya Carter, Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE - Health care workers gathered outside Mission Hospital on Jan. 13 to voice concerns about safe working conditions, thinned staffing levels and national COVID-19 protections they say are being weakened, while hospital administrators said they were doing all they could to keep workers and patients safe.
In their first action of 2022, Mission Hospital employees with National Nurses United joined a nationwide day meant to emphasize workplace shortages and "hold employers accountable for staffing crisis (and) call for workplace protections," according to an NNU news release.
About 90 to 100 activists at Mission held signs, chanted and waved at honking cars at the intersection of Biltmore Avenue and Hospital Drive. The last time they met for an action was Oct. 21.
Elle Kruta, a registered nurse who works in Mission's case management department, was among the activists calling for changes locally and nationally.
Kruta told the Citizen Times on Jan. 12 that newly announced Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards for shortened quarantine times pose a risk to nurses.
"With the new CDC guidelines, there might not be a nurse able to take care of you when you come into the hospital," she said. "We're always going to fight to be by the patient's side, but if we're sick ourselves or the hospital doesn't supply enough staff or the proper protective equipment, we can't."
NNU is pushing not only the CDC and local hospitals to be better about providing a safe working environment, they're also putting pressure on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make permanent its emergency COVID protections standard for workers.
"How can we take care of patients if we can't take care of ourselves?" said Kruta, who has three children and two grandchildren.
"I've always wanted to be a nurse. My grandmother was one of the first nurse practitioners in Colorado, and she set a great example on how to care for people and patients," she said.
"As soon as I was in a position to, I got my CNA, then I got my LPN, then I got my diploma in nursing, then my bachelor's in nursing, and now I have my master's in nursing."
She called her work a "dream," a "love" and a "passion," and said many of her colleagues feel the same way.
But she also said working conditions in the U.S. for those in the health care field are becoming increasingly difficult, especially with the new wave of COVID, pushing nurses to leave their jobs.
She quoted NNU's Jan. 13 statement which said that, according to a health care worker survey the union completed, "68 percent of respondents said that they have considered leaving their position."
NNU also said in a Dec. 21 statement that 4,696 health care workers have died of COVID as of Dec. 20, including 476 registered nurses.
"Nurses are angry," said NNU organizer and Mission medical surgical registered nurse Claire Siegel. "We're never going to stop fighting HCA, we're never going to stop fighting for our patients and for safe staffing ratios and protections at the hospital."
Siegel and local NNU members are demanding Mission Health parent company HCA Healthcare and administration focus on the safety of nurses over corporate profits. "Show up for Asheville, not Wall Street!" they said in a pamphlet that was distributed to activists and offered to passersby Jan. 13.
"What we're seeing is Mission Hospital is facing the same challenges across the country," Mission Hospital Assistant Chief Nursing Officer Michelle Nelson said Jan. 13. She said Mission's struggles are similar to health care centers nationwide, brought on by increases in the number of COVID patients and staff shortages.
"I think that, to date, in the two years of the pandemic, we've done an amazing job in making sure that our patients and our team members have the resources needed to be able to keep them safe," Nelson said.
Responding to NNU organizer claims that they didn't have immediate access to N95 masks, Nelson said the masks are "readily available on all of our units. We keep a supply and if (nurses) run out, they can easily call a supply chain team member here."
She said nurses can get masks if they feel like they need a new one.
"We don't restrict the number of N95 masks available to them at any time," Nelson said.
N95 masks are proven to be "very efficient" in blocking airborne particles from entering the respiratory system, therefore protecting against COVID infection. They are a baseline defense tool against sickness for health care workers, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
But nurses still say they need more than what they currently have access to.
Many nurses are still getting sick with COVID, even at Mission.
Mission Health and HCA Healthcare North Carolina Division spokesperson Nancy Lindell said she didn't know how many Mission Health employees were infected on Jan. 13. "It fluctuates daily," she said.
She also said she didn't know how many Mission Health employees had been vaccinated. "It's hard to say," she said, noting employees get vaccinated and tested at other locations besides the Mission network, which is made up of five regional hospitals. The network employs between 10,000 and 11,000 people across Western North Carolina, Lindell said.
HCA, and therefore Mission, currently doesn't require employees to get vaccinated. After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Jan. 13 that will require health care workers to get vaccinated, that will likely change. HCA on Jan. 13 had not released a statement on this decision, but Lindell indicated one would be forthcoming.
When asked about Mission's relationship with NNU organizers, Nelson, who has been with Mission for nearly 10 years, said the hospital has a "very robust shared governance council."
There are multiple councils and committees on which nurses sit. Those nurses help make decisions about practice, quality and other things. Union members sit on some of those councils, Nelson said.
She said that, under Chief Nursing Officer Melanie Wetmore's leadership, that system is being made "more robust."
"Those councils are open to any nurse who wants to participate," Nelson added.
Internally and publicly, nurses continue to reiterate issues in the workplace.
In December, Siegel emphasized a list of demands and requests NNU nurses have for administration. They included:
- Staffing nurses to grids they agree on.
- Making sure that, if the hospital floats nurses to different units, those nurses are trained on those units.
- Making sure the hospital provides adequate contact tracing for nurses who come into contact with COVID-19.
- Making vaccines easily accessible for all units and shifts.
- Consistent and appropriate access to PPE.
She said Jan. 13 those still stand.
"It's an offense to this community," Siegel said, that HCA continues to make "record profits" while she said nurses struggle with the impact of thinned staff and a lack of equipment.
"We have a shortage of hospital administrators that are willing to treat nurses with dignity and respect and keep us safe at work," she said. "There's not a nursing shortage, there's a shortage of nurses who are willing to be exploited at work."
Mission is the largest hospital system in the mountains and has dealt with controversy since it was sold to the for-profit HCA in 2019. There have been hundreds of patient complaints to the attorney general's office, protests by nurses and an anti-trust lawsuit filed in 2020.
When asked about how people can support Mission's health care workers right now, Nelson emphasized the importance of protecting against the virus.
"Don't forget that (health care workers) are constantly putting their lives on the line to take care of our families," Nelson said. "I would ask the community to do to protect themselves so that we're protecting our employees."
Andrew Jones is Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Follow or reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source : https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/2022/01/14/asheville-mission-employees-demand-safer-working-conditions/9188328002/