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“We’re running out of nurses” — a COVID-19 outbreak among Providence Memorial ICU nursing staff

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Between five and eight intensive care unit nurses at The Hospitals of Providence Memorial Campus have tested positive for COVID-19, with additional suspected cases among ICU nurses, according to several Providence staff members. 

“We’re running out of nurses,” said one Providence Memorial ICU nurse who is currently home sick with COVID-19. She asked that she not be identified for fear of retaliation, so El Paso Matters is calling her Martha.

This story is based on interviews with six nurses from Providence Memorial, 2001 N. Oregon, including five who work in the ICU. All of them asked not to be identified, for fear of negative repercussions for speaking out about their workplace. They’re being identified by pseudonyms for this story. 

Martha said she and between four to seven other Providence Memorial ICU nurses have tested positive in recent days, and more are awaiting test results. Because the hospital does not share COVID-19 positive case information, exact numbers are unclear among staff. Nurses rely on reporting to each other in order to find out when coworkers have tested positive.  

Multiple members of the ICU nursing staff said the hospital initially attributed these COVID-19 cases to community spread of the disease instead of workplace spread, and declined to provide ill workers with quarantine/hazard pay for lost work. Instead, several nurses said they were initially expected to use their paid time off, a combined pool of vacation days and sick days.

“The (chief nursing officer) said that they couldn’t find a source from where we got sick, so it must have been community acquired. He believes that we didn’t get sick at the hospital, that we all must have gotten it from the community,” said Martha, who coughed through an interview. 

Martha later said hospital officials changed their minds and decided to give sick workers hazard pay after all, though they continue to say the infection wasn’t spread within the hospital. She said they did not receive notification in writing, and continued to have concerns over whether they would actually be paid for time out sick. 

Hospital officials offer limited response

The Hospitals of Providence did not respond to questions about the number of COVID-19 infections among nursing staff at Providence Memorial, or how they would be paid for time missed from work while in quarantine. Instead, hospital spokesperson Monique Poessiger released a general statement: “We are very focused on minimizing staff exposures in our hospitals.  All employees at our hospital are temperature checked upon arrival, wear a mask during patient care and are required to notify employee health if they become symptomatic.” 

Amy, another ICU nurse at Providence Memorial, said hospital administration frequently provides unclear communication, leaving workers doubting whether they will be protected by their employer.

“A lot of it is not in writing, and you always get an answer like that, one day they say one thing, and the next day you’re told something else. I’m not sure if that’s just the culture of this company,” Amy said.

Multiple sources from the Providence Memorial ICU have said five night-shift ICU nurses began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 on July 20, and since then more ICU workers have begun showing symptoms, some of whom are currently awaiting testing results. 

“It just seems odd to me that all of them came down with the same symptoms at the same time, the same day, when they had been working together previously. It’s too much of a coincidence. To me it seems like it was acquired at work,” said Maria, a nurse at Providence Memorial. 

In the past two weeks, four Providence Memorial ICU nurses have resigned, according to colleagues. Some of the nurses who resigned specifically attributed their reason for leaving to inadequate personal protective equipment, and fear of their level of exposure to COVID-19. 

“Nurses are leaving here, physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, and I cannot blame them. I have the same burden that they feel, and I’ve considered it myself,” Amy said. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers at multiple hospitals throughout El Paso have voiced concerns about worker safety issues, particularly in connection to access to PPE. 

Several nurses raised concerns about improper reuse of PPE by ICU nurses, and inadequate sanitation protocol in common areas for employees. 

Elena, an ICU nurse, said that she thinks inadequate PPE caused the outbreak of COVID-19 among ICU nurses at Providence Memorial. 

“We’re expected to use one mask, and if they break we’re trying to staple them or do something to keep them together. We’re expected to use the same gown, which is something that we would never do when we had isolation patients (before COVID-19). So it’s just, they’re not providing us with enough PPE,” Elena said.

Poessiger said workers are provided with adequate PPE.  “The safety and health of our patients and staff is our highest priority.  We follow the guidelines recommended by the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for appropriate PPE use and our hospitals have the necessary resources and supplies in place to safely care for our patients.”

Some PPE reuse is compliant with current CDC guidelines, including limited reuse of N95 masks. However, some El Paso nurses have voiced concerns that CDC guidelines have been weakened during the pandemic, thereby exposing hospital workers to greater risk.

Nurses say they’re now handling cleaning and other sanitation

Another ICU nurse, Leah, said PPE and sanitation protocols are lacking, and heighten exposure risks among hospital staff. “ Our housekeepers are dwindling. You don’t see housekeeping personnel actively cleaning the unit. There’s no cleaning of the hallways or the passageways. Secondly, they’re also requiring the nurses and the runners to clean. So they’re leaving everything up to nursing,” she said.

Four other nurses said ICU nurses are now expected to clean several parts of the ICU, including common areas like the hallways and nursing stations. They expressed concerns that the unit is not being disinfected frequently enough because nurses are overwhelmed with their patient loads. 

Poessiger didn’t respond to questions about sanitation protocols at the Providence Memorial campus.

Hospital ICUs in El Paso have been at or near capacity in recent weeks, filled with an influx of COVID-19 patients. 

The Providence Memorial ICU has experienced this spike along with other El Paso medical facilities, and some nurses have said that it has been more acutely felt because of understaffing, a problem that has worsened with employee resignations and COVID-19 infections among nurses.

Martha, the nurse who is currently sick with COVID-19, said Providence Memorial nurses don’t feel supported by their employer.

“It’s just disheartening, because a lot of us have been working nonstop in COVID, working really hard, trying our best. So then to find out that when you get sick, they just don’t really care, they tell you to use your PTO hours and come back when you’re feeling better,” she said.

René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. She has a new album coming out on Sister Polygon Records in fall 2020, and is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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