As with so many stories about health care workers in the pandemic, it was wrenching to read about a dedicated local nurse who died of COVID-19 just two weeks after rushing into the room of a patient who had stopped breathing. The nurse, Celia Marcos, had gone ahead and begun chest compressions, which cause virus-laden air to be expelled forcefully, even though she lacked an N95 mask that would have afforded her the best protection.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether that was the event that sickened Marcos. What we do know is that tragic numbers of health workers have been infected, in some cases fatally, after caring for COVID-19 patients. For months now, there have been reports of doctors and nurses working without adequate personal protective equipment, including N95 masks. Often, one mask must suffice for an entire shift, which means it cannot be taken off all day. And those are the workers who even get an N95 mask.
“The hospital wasn’t giving us appropriate PPE — the N95s were locked,” said one nurse at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, where Marcos worked. One striking detail: This nurse and other hospital staff refused to speak on the record for fear of retaliation from the hospital.
You can’t blame them, considering what’s been happening to other health care workers throughout the pandemic. Here are two examples: A doctor in Washington state was fired after he started posting on social media about the shortage of safety gear at his hospital, including, he said, nurses being told to treat patients without any kind of mask. He took to public postings, he said, only after his complaints to hospital management were dismissed. And 10 nurses at Providence St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica were suspended last month after refusing to work without better protection.
The nonprofit news organization ProPublica has reported that doctors and nurses throughout the country have been fired, suspended, placed on leave or threatened for voicing their concerns. Many don’t complain, fearful of getting into trouble.
It’s not the hospitals’ fault, for the most part, that personal protective equipment has been in such short supply. Blame that on federal and state leaders who failed to plan adequately for a pandemic. But it is not acceptable to discipline workers for complaining, either internally or publicly, about such a high-level health risk. Complaints might harm a hospital’s reputation, but the public’s right to know outweighs such considerations. Patients should be able to make decisions about where to seek care based on how well a hospital is equipped. And hospital managers might just feel pressured to work harder at protecting staff.
California has laws to guard nurses and other hospital staff from unsafe working conditions, as well as from retaliation for whistleblower complaints to the state under certain conditions. But it’s not clear whether the whistleblower rules are broad enough to protect the front-line workers who risk their health each day to care for us. These are extreme times that call for allowing health professionals to speak openly and publicly about what’s going on in their workplaces. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other states’ leaders should issue executive orders to clarify that in a public health emergency, medical workers have the right to speak out without fear.