Trading their scrubs for signs, dozens of nurses with Charleston Area Medical Center’s health system stood outside their respective facilities Thursday morning to protest working conditions within the health centers and comments made by CAMC CEO David Ramsey blaming them for COVID-19 infections in hospitals.
Their signs included “From heroes to zeroes,” “Where is our hazard pay?” and “Support health care workers.” Cars, ambulances and even some fire trucks honked in support as they drove by. Some nurses were demanding hazard pay for their work amid the pandemic. Others lamented a lack of personal protective equipment for staffers.
Nearly all said they want to feel respected by their hospital administrators.
“When I heard what [Ramsey] said, it was like a betrayal. I was hurt. I felt, not for the first time but certainly the strongest, I felt disposable to them — like my contributions and sacrifices don’t matter,” said one nurse, who works in a COVID-19 unit at CAMC General and who asked to stay anonymous for fear of losing her job. “I’ve given 10, 11 years to this hospital. I love my job, that’s why I — we — show up every day. It’s clear, though, the people in charge don’t love us back.”
In an interview with WCHS-TV last week, Ramsey said the increase in COVID-19-positive staffers within the hospital system is concerning but that it is not being contracted within hospitals. Instead, he said, staff members are bringing it into the facilities.
“They’re not getting it from patients. They’re not getting it from visitors, because we’re not allowing visitors. A staff member is bringing it from home and then, unfortunately, not all of our staff have been consistent in masking, especially when they are around friends,” he said. “The hospital is a reflection of the community.”
In a later statement, Ramsey apologized for his remarks, saying it was never his intent to offend his employees and wanted them to know that he appreciates the work they do.
“Many times, I’ve told our children the intent of their behavior and the effect of their behavior are two different things. The effect of my comments did offend some of you. My intent was to stress to the community the impact of the acceleration of the infection rate in Kanawha, Putnam and Fayette counties,” Ramsey said. “I appreciate your hard work, the many sacrifices you make each day, juggling school schedules and the many other challenges of functioning in a pandemic. I’m so sorry you do not feel like I support you.”
This apology, said a nurse from CAMC’s Women and Children’s Hospital, was “a slap in the face.”
“It felt insincere and rehearsed. And I understand some of that, I do from a public perspective, but it wasn’t enough,” she said. “We go into work every day knowing the risks we’ll need to take. During [the pandemic], we’re still going, putting our families — our own children, sometimes — at risk. To say we’re to blame — how dare he? How dare he, when the conditions we’re working under make it nearly impossible to keep ourselves safe?”
Some nurses, also speaking anonymously out of fear of retribution, said they were sometimes issued one N95 mask to use over several days. At the end of the day, they said, they were instructed to put them in brown paper bags, where they would stay — unsanitized — until the next morning.
In some COVID-19 units, nurses said, they were told to wear surgical masks instead of N95s, which aren’t as effective in filtering out COVID-19 particles.
Dale Witte, a spokesman for CAMC, said in an email Thursday that hospital system leadership convened a panel of experts in infectious disease, nursing and environmental services, and this week they began distributing additional PPE and other items “available upon request” for those working with patients.
“Throughout the pandemic, CAMC has followed the guidance of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to supply appropriate PPE for COVID units and others caring for these patients. But we recognize that, as the spread of COVID has increased significantly in our region, there is a heightened concern among healthcare workers,” Witte wrote.
The nurse working in a COVID-19 unit at CAMC General said “it’s ridiculous” to believe that hospital workers aren’t contracting COVID-19 at hospitals, when that’s where they’re in some of the most vulnerable positions and exposed to the disease.
“We don’t blame the patients; it’s not their fault. And yes, we are still, you know, getting groceries and with our families who are out at their work,” she said. “Our highest risk, though, is being behind those walls.”
She and a male nurse standing nearby said they were offended by the idea that nurses and health care workers weren’t taking COVID-19 precautions seriously outside the hospital.
“We’ve seen more than most what this virus can do. We’re not just treating the patients — we’re the ones by their sides if they die,” the male nurse said. “We have seen the worst — the worst — that can happen, and we know what we need to be doing to do our part in controlling the spread. We are being safe, because we know what can happen if we’re not.”
While a perceived lack of respect might have been a large part of grievances expressed Thursday, many of the nurses wanted to see tangible changes enacted in the hospital system to better their work environments. That means calls for more PPE and clear guidelines on use and regulations, but also an acknowledgement in pay, a nurse from CAMC Memorial said.
In June, the hospital system temporarily halted payments to match employees’ 401(k) contributions until Dec. 31. A 3% across-the-board pay raise for employees was put off as the health system struggled to make profit when the governor put a temporary stop to elective procedures.
While some front-line workers across the state are receiving hazard pay for conditions brought on by the pandemic, those at CAMC are not.
“We’re not even breaking even now without the 401(k) match,” the nurse from Memorial’s COVID-19 unit said. “I’m, really ... I’m almost losing money in this job right now. How is that right?”
Behind all of this, a nationwide nurse shortage is making things tougher at the hospitals, especially as employees are exposed to and contract COVID-19.
CAMC, like most hospitals, relies on contracted, or “traveling,” nurses to fill shifts. Unlike permanent employees, the male nurse from CAMC General said, these workers earn bonuses and other pay boosts that are not available to others.
“We don’t want them to lose anything, but we would like to be treated fairly, given what we’re responsible for doing every day,” he said. “We’re doing the same jobs, with the same patients. It’s unfair.”
Witte, with CAMC, did not confirm whether contracted nurses receive bonuses from the hospital or their parent employer. According to 2018 990 forms, the most recent available through Guidestar, a database for nonprofit reports, the hospital system relies on several independent contractors for nurses, physicians, IT workers and other positions.
Witte said the hospital leadership plans to work with their professional nursing council to “improve communications and allow for more feedback to better address” concerns with its workforce.
“First and foremost, nothing is more important than the safety of our patients and our workforce. CAMC respects everyone’s right to express themselves,” Witte wrote in an emailed statement. “We want our workforce to feel supported, and appreciate their hard work and dedication to our patients during this challenging time.”