NEW YORK, N.Y.— New York City’s health-care system is on the verge of collapse, nurses warned at a rally outside Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx January 12.
After “decades of underfunding,” it’s buckling under the surge of infections from the Omicron variant of COVID-19, said Kelley Cabrera, an emergency-room nurse who’s president of the New York State Nurses Association’s bargaining unit at Jacobi. At one point earlier in the week, she told the rally, there were 40 patients admitted who were waiting for rooms, lying on beds in the halls by the emergency room.
“Our health-care system was never designed for this,” she said.
“We’re overwhelmed,” emergency-room nurse Karen Lam said.
The hospital is seeing a record number of patients, and they’re sicker than usual, she told the rally. At any time, she might be trying to medicate eight patients, while one man is screaming that he can’t breathe, a woman wants to be cleaned up — and then someone with a gunshot wound comes in.
“Having two of me still wouldn’t be enough,” she said. “I am tired of feeling like a bad nurse, when in reality it’s bad working conditions.”
NYSNA’s January 2020 contract with New York City Health and Hospitals, board member Reginalt Atangan told LaborPress, set a limit of six patients per nurse on medical-surgical wards at the city’s public hospitals. The agency “had 18 months to hire enough nurses to meet those ratios,” he continued. But six months after the deadline, “there still isn’t any improvement.”
At Queens Hospital, where he works, his average over the last six months has ranged from seven to twelve patients. How does he manage to take care of them all?
“I wish I had a good answer,” he responds. “You’re stuck doing the best you can with what you’ve got. It’s not enough.”
Three-fourths of the patients at Queens have COVID, he told the rally. And with the highly contagious Omicron, “staff are getting sick as much as patients.”
NYSNA executive director Pat Kane said the number of workers in the city’s health and hospital system testing positive for COVID shot from 154 in November to almost 3,000 in December.
New York City Health and Hospitals did not return a call from LaborPress.
Exodus of nurses
“Even when Omicron subsides, the system will be hanging on by a thread,” Jacobi pediatric emergency-room nurse Sean Petty told LaborPress. “We haven’t even begun to grapple with the impact of long COVID.
Earlier, he’d told the rally that the hospital’s pediatric intensive-care unit had only one full-time nurse on duty, with the other two hired temporarily through an agency.
“You would think the local and federal governments would have learned from the surge two years ago, but they stopped hiring nurses,” said NYSNA president Nancy Hagans.
The situation is “just as abysmal” in private-sector hospitals, added former NYSNA head Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez.
The result of all this is what nurses say is an unprecedented exodus from the job. “We’ve lost thousands of members,” said Kane.
Atangan said his unit at Queens, with 33 regular beds and 33 telemedicine, has gone from 18 full-time nurses to six. The emergency room at Jacobi lost 20, Cabrera told reporters after the rally.
The ICU has lost 15, said Jeremy Schmid, and the ones leaving are experienced. Of the 60 nurses he’s trained in his nine years at Jacobi, only two are still there. In some units, he said, the average experience is less than one year.
Nurses can make diagnoses, Sean Petty said, and his is “we’re all suffering from moral distress secondary to system failure.”
If that’s the diagnosis, what’s the best course of treatment?
“The city needs to retain nurses, not retrain them,” Schmid told the rally.
The deeper systemic issue, NYSNA says, is that the city’s public hospitals are considered “safety net” facilities: They have to take anyone who seeks treatment, and can’t turn them away for not having insurance. But they have been chronically underfunded at least since the austerity imposed during the 1970s fiscal crisis.
Jacobi’s emergency room is where many of the victims of the Jan. 9 fire that killed 17 people at the Twin Parks Northwest building on East 181st Street were taken. Petty recalled trying to resuscitate a 12-year-old boy dying from smoke inhalation, a boy only a few months younger than his own son.
The health-care system, he said, is “not only broken, but in a state of apartheid.” That Medicare for All isn’t on the national agenda, he added, is “disgusting.”
NYSNA has been the most outspoken advocate of single-payer health care of any union in New York State, both Medicare for All nationally and the New York Health Act, a bill introduced in the Legislature that would use Medicaid and Medicare funds to set up a state single-payer system.
If the COVID pandemic “hasn’t shown you that this is survival of the richest, I don’t know what will — ever,” Kane said.
Bronx Assemblymember Nathalia Fernandez, a cosponsor of the New York Health Act, spoke briefly, as did Borough President Vanessa Gibson, who called for passing the New York Health Act in the name of “health-care equity and health-care justice.” City Councilmember Marjorie Velazquez also spoke, as did Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, a cosponsor of the Safe Staffing Act enacted last year. That law instructs the state Department of Health to set standards for intensive-care units that would require at least 12 hours of care by a registered nurse per day.
“We need to pass the New York Health Act. Across the country, we need to pass Medicare for All,” Cabrera told the rally. “It’s time to put an end to this two-tier health system.”