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COVID-19 Pandemic Increases Violence Against Frontline Healthcare Workers

New York, NY – COVID-19 is already responsible for killing some 3,500 healthcare workers across the United States — now, America’s nurses say they’re being subjected to another aspect of the ongoing pandemic — increasing workplace violence. 

Twenty percent of those responding to a National Nurses United [NNU] survey of 15,000 members conducted last fall, say they have been physically attacked on the job.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], healthcare workers are actually five times more likely to be victimized on the job than other workers overall. 

Last month, a 67-year-old man struggling with opioid addiction named Gregory Patrick Ulrich allegedly shot up the Allina Clinic Crossroads health clinic in Buffalo, Minnesota, injuring five. Lindsay Overbay, a 37-year-old mother of two and medical assistant working at the facility — later died of her injuries. 

NNU — the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the country with 170,000 members nationwide — insists that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating violent patient outbursts and that hospital employers aren’t doing enough to protect healthcare workers. 

Allysha Shin, a member of the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee, is a registered nurse [RN] who still deals with the trauma of being battered and kicked in the face while attempting to care for a distraught patient at the University of Southern California’s Keck Medical Center in 2016. 

Shin’s entire ordeal, in which hospital security was reportedly slow to respond, lasted 30 minutes. The blows the veteran RN sustained in that time ultimately forced her to miss her next two shifts at work. Shin blames hospital bosses for failing to have adequate safety standards in place that should have protected her. 

“They will say it was inevitable,” Shin says. “But I’m here to tell you nothing could be further from the truth — the patient’s history made this incident predictable.” 

NNU Co-President Jean Ross says that the threat of criminal prosecution alone cannot prevent workplace violence  — and that several factors associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may be contributing to an escalation of workplace violence. 

Ross told me that chronic short staffing is the pre-existing condition that is undermining the ability of hospitals to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, saying “If they’re not going to supply us with enough staff, this is going to make it 100 times worse.”

Back in June, Michelle Gonzalez, a 31-year-old nurse at Montefiore Medical Center in NYC told me what it was like trying to care for multiple patients in the middle of a pandemic. 

“The days that I had up to four, I came home and cried like a baby,” she said. “Your body cannot physically do that. You can’t be at two places at once. So, you just run to room to room to room — neglecting your own body’s needs. Not eating, not drinking because you can’t take off the mask. Not going to the bathroom for 12 hours.”

As of March 1, there are some 47,352 people across the U.S. hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Of that number, 9,802 are in Intensive Care Units [ICU] struggling for life — 3,245 of them are on ventilators. 

Fear of COVID-19 is also forcing some patients to delay seeking necessary medical attention and that, too, is adding to simmering tensions, according to Ross. 

“People aren’t coming in [to the hospital] early enough,” Ross says. “Maybe they’re in sepsis. That’s hard to control. A simple UTI [urinary tract infection], can make people go off the wall.”

Visiting family members can be both a hindrance and a help to nurses and other healthcare workers aiding the sick. 

“There are more things we have to say no to — [some] people don’t respond well [to being told], ‘You must wear a mask,’” Ross says. “More patients and their families are acting up. Employers don’t want to hear about it and sweep it under the rug.” 

The BLS found that healthcare workers accounted for 73-percent of all nonfatal workplace injuries and illness due to violence in 2018.

Reporting violent incidences is voluntary, however. Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney says, nurses are often told to just “shake it off.” So, the actual number of healthcare workers being attacked on the job is probably a lot higher than statistics show. 

“I’ve been a nurse for 40 years,” Ross adds. “I didn’t take violence 1010.” 

Nurses and their allies are hoping that a change in presidential administrations will put Courtney’s 2019 Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act on the fast track. 

The updated measure reintroduced last month, seeks to compel employers to investigate workplace violence incidents, risks, or hazards as soon as practicable; provide training and education to employees who may be exposed to workplace violence hazards and risks; meet record keeping requirements; and prohibit acts of discrimination or retaliation against employees for reporting workplace violence incidents, threats, or concerns. 

It previously garnered enough votes to pass in the House, but then died in the senate during the Trump administration. 

“The Senate was a graveyard for lots of good bills, Rep. Courtney says. “This one failed [when] the Trump administration was doing nothing at the Department of Labor. For four years, he just basically dismissed this as not a priority. I hope [incoming Labor Secretary Marty] Walsh gives this attention.”

Similar legislation aiming to establish enforceable safety standards and training in deescalating violence has already been adopted in California and Minnesota. 

NNU, along with 44 allied unions and organizations, meanwhile, continues to push the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] to update its Covid-19 safety guidelines to reflect the dangers that aerosols — fine particles emitted when breathing, speaking, coughing, sneezing or singing — pose to healthcare workers. 

New York State Nurses Association [NYSNA] Executive Director Pat Kane, RN, says many of the thousands of healthcare workers who have succumbed to the novel coronavirus could have been saved if the CDC had recognized the threat of aerosols. 

“The healthcare and other essential workforces have been devastated by COVID-19 infection and thousands have died due to their occupational exposure,” Kane said in a statement. “Many of those exposures could have been avoided if the CDC had recognized the wealth of data that proves that SARS-CoV-2 is spread through inhalation of airborne virus particulates.” The 42,000 members of NYSNA and essential workers everywhere deserve federal guidance that fully recognizes the risk of airborne exposure and recommends controls that effectively limit this exposure.”

A recently released report commissioned by the American Hospital Association frets that the pandemic could cost hospitals between $53 and $122 billion in 2021. 

“Our lives aren’t as important as money,” says Ross.

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