Roughly 18,000 nurses at Kaiser Permanente-owned hospitals and clinics in northern California went on strike Tuesday, escalating a dispute over how hospital companies prepare and equip staff to deal with potential Ebola patients.
The nurses say the hospital company is “refusing to address the concern of Kaiser RNs about Ebola safety protocols and protective equipment.” They want full-body hazardous materials (haz-mat) suits that are up to specific medical standards and powered air-filtration masks to be available at all hospitals nationwide. According to the nurses, Kaiser has refused to respond to that request in northern California. Dozens of other events designed to increase the pressure on hospitals and policymakers to improve and standardize Ebola preparedness efforts are planned for Wednesday, including a strike at a Washington, DC hospital.
The striking health care workers are members of National Nurses United (NNU), a labor union that represents 190,000 nurses nationwide and which has earned praise and attention from national media for recording political and legislative victories at a time when many labor organizations are in retreat.
Ebola headlines have given the workers an opportunity to elevate broader concerns about patient care, resources, and staffing levels at the Kaiser Permanente facilities. Negotiations for a new contract with the company have been underway for months, with each side accusing the other of refusing to engage in good faith. NNU says that Kaiser’s policies require them to keep patients in the emergency room who should be admitted to the hospital and accuses the company of leaving the northern California facilities seriously understaffed by failing to fill 2,000 open registered nurse positions.
In the months since the Ebola outbreak in West Africa became headline news in the U.S., the union has become the most prominent agitator for improved equipment and training protocols at American hospitals. An NNU survey of members found that four out of five have not been given adequate training to deal with Ebola patients, the Washington Post reported. The group’s request for President Obama to lay out federal standards for hospitals to follow on Ebola training also made headlines after a second nurse in Dallas had contracted Ebola from Thomas Eric Duncan, the only Ebola patient to die on U.S. soil.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have emphasized that the two infections of Dallas health care workers who treated Duncan were foreseeable and have been contained. But NNU President Deborah Burger has told reporters that Duncan was treated in an open area for days and that the hospital failed to establish a consistent, medically sound set of rules for staff treating him. The inconsistencies in Duncan’s treatment, Burger says, illustrate a haphazard preparedness for dealing with the infectious disease in hospitals around the country.
The scrutiny and paranoia facing the nurses and doctors who have treated Ebola patients — both in the U.S. and in the west African countries where there is an actual outbreak of the disease — may be understandable psychologically, but it is scientifically unsound. To make sure that these health care professionals can do their jobs effectively and safely, NNU says, it is especially important to standardize hospital procedures for handling the disease.