'We're overwhelmed:' Nurses protest COVID working conditions
Chicago nurses joined colleagues across the country Thursday to protest against working conditions that they say have rapidly deteriorated as hordes of COVID-19 patients push hospitals to the limit.
Scott Mechanic, 36, an emergency room nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said the problems stem from widespread labor shortages throughout the health-care system and hospital leaders who are reluctant to provide assistance.
“We don’t have food service people … we don’t have supply chain people to deliver our most critical supplies, we don’t have people to repair our equipment,” Mechanic said. “But every job that doesn’t get done by somebody else ends up falling to the bedside nurse. We’re overwhelmed.”
The protests, organized by National Nurses United, a labor union boasting 175,000 members nationwide, were part of a jam-packed day of action across 11 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., “to demand the hospital industry invest in safe staffing, and to demand that President (Joe) Biden follow through on his campaign promise to protect nurses and prioritize public health,” according to the union.
In Chicago, members are still working and the action was part of their bargaining process, but other branches walked off the job.
Biden announced Thursday that his administration would double its order of rapid tests for Americans and would begin distributing “high-quality” masks, which have soared in price, rendering them financially inaccessible to some Americans.
The highly transmissible omicron variant is fueling a surge in COVID cases across the country, and now accounts for 98% of all cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals have also sounded the alarm about staffing problems, insufficient resources and worsening conditions.
Health experts say that while the variant may cause less severe symptoms in people who are vaccinated and otherwise healthy, it’s still extremely dangerous for people who are unvaccinated and may have other conditions. Nearly 63% of people in the United States are fully vaccinated.
At the hospital where Mechanic works on Chicago’s South Side, he said COVID-19 patients are just as sick as they have been throughout the pandemic. The South Side is predominantly Black, highlighting concerns about the devastating effect the pandemic has had on communities of color.
“It’s shocking how sick people are,” Mechanic said. “They’re still getting sick and dying of COVID today. That hasn’t changed.”
Chicago estimates that 56% of Black residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, lagging White and Latino people in the city. The CDC has recorded similar data, reporting that 54% of Black Americans have received one COVID-19 vaccine dose.
“At this point, I can’t believe I’m still doing this,” Mechanic said. “I’m still calling (patients’] families and holding the phone to their ear while they gasp for air, knowing it's likely the last words they’ll speak.”