- The New York State Nurses Association filed three lawsuits Monday alleging unsafe working conditions at hospitals as providers across the country struggle to obtain adequate personal protective equipment amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
- The nurses organization sued the New York State Department of Health, Montefiore Medical Center and Westchester Medical Center, arguing nurses were not properly trained for redeployment from hospital units and not receiving PPE. They seek injunctive relief.
- Westchester Medical Center Health Network in a statement denied the allegations and called the lawsuit irresponsible and a distraction from patient care. Montefiore said union leadership was attacking colleagues "selflessly doing all they can to fight COVID-19 and save lives." A health department spokesperson said the agency couldn't comment on pending litigation but the state is taking every step necessary to ensure workers "have the support and supplies needed to address this unprecedented public health emergency."
New York has been the hardest hit state as COVID-19 shuts down much of the country and threatens to overwhelm hospitals. Finding adequate PPE for providers has been a persistent problem.
In a recent survey from group purchasing organization Premier, 75% of respondents said they had difficulty finding isolation gowns and 67% had trouble procuring N95 masks. Providers have resorted to reusing their supplies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said other material can be used during patient care as a last resort.
Some healthcare workers have taken to bringing their own PPE, but many hospital policies forbid that practice. The Joint Commission last month came down in support of the workers.
A report from the HHS Office of Inspector General earlier this month, affirmed by the American Hospital Association, found "widespread shortages of PPE put staff and patients at risk" and said hospitals noted uncertain availability of supplies and sharp price increases.
In a letter published Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine, a Massachusetts chief physician executive describes incredible efforts to eventually obtain pallets of masks for his hospital, delivered in trucks disguised as food service vehicles.
"Our supply-chain group has worked around the clock to secure gowns, gloves, face masks, goggles, face shields, and N95 respirators. These employees have adapted to a new normal, exploring every lead, no matter how unusual," wrote Andrew Artenstein of Baystate Health.
NYSNA, which represents 42,000 members, said in court filings at least six of its registered nurses have died due to COVID-19 contracted at work and 84 have been hospitalized.
The lawsuit against Westchester, a nearly 900-bed facility in the Hudson Valley region, also alleges "intimidating RNs who have spoke out publicly about deficiencies" in the hospital's response.
Bronx-based Montefiore has about 1,500 beds. NYSNA is suing on behalf of 3,000 nurses there.
While the filings mark some of the first large-scale legal actions on behalf of healthcare workers during the COVID-19 crisis, nurses and other providers have been speaking out for weeks about lack of PPE.
National Nurses United is planning a protest Tuesday in front of the White House to call attention to healthcare workers who have become infected on the job. Also Tuesday, nurses at Providence Saint John's in Santa Monica, California, will be gathering to show support for nurses the union said were suspended after requesting PPE.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses in New York were arguing their working conditions were untenable. About a year ago, 10,000 nurses were planning a strike of three health systems, including Montefiore, and said staffing levels were inadequate.
The standoff was resolved when the hospitals agreed to wage increases and the hiring of 1,450 new nurses.