Nurses in Washington, D.C., rallied outside Howard University Hospital on Thursday over what their union calls “unsafe” working conditions, including nurses who are treating too many patients or working while sick.
Between shifts, dozens of District of Columbia Nurses of Association (DCNA) nurses put down their charts to pick up signs and raise concerns, part of a group of nurses demonstrating across the country to raise awareness about nursing staff issues.
"Safe staffing! Safe staffing!" One demonstrator said. Others held signs, two of which read: "I am a patient advocate" and "every patient deserves a nurse."
Howard University Hospital sent a statement to News4, saying it recognizes the pressures facing workers and nurses amid nationwide staffing shortages and a surge of COVID-19 cases. The hospital says it's taking action to ensure safe staffing.
DCNA says it wants hospitals to invest in hiring and training more personnel. They say some members worry fellow nurses are leaving the field for fear of losing their licenses and personal safety.
Longtime Howard University Hospital nurse Eileen Shaw says the recent wave of COVID-19 infections has inundated hospitals and heaped critical duties onto health care workers.
“I think nurses have more responsibility, but I think the patients are sicker so it takes more time,” Shaw said.
Ed Smith, executive director for the DCNA, says local frontline nurses report they are so busy that it’s challenging to accomplish tasks like bringing water to patients or answering phones.
“The problem we see is that on a daily basis you’re coming in, 12 hours here, 12 hours there. And, at times, it can be overwhelming for nurses,” Smith said.
Howard University Hospital said it's confronting issues by using staffing agencies, reallocating hospital resources, collaborating with the DC Hospital Association and utilizing its nurse residency program.
“Like the vast majority of hospitals across the country, we are facing staffing shortages that have been exacerbated by the current COVID surge and significant community spread,” the hospital said in a statement. “We are working diligently to ensure we are safely staffing our units and supporting our valued nurses and staff so they can continue to care for our patients.”
Shaw says the agency nurses help, but there's a difference for nurses with roots in the D.C. area.
"For us, that are here, the community is important. We have to love them and hug them. And when we are not able to do that, especially for me, it hurts," Shaw said.
Many nurses say they'll continue to give it their all to ensure quality care for patients.
The protest comes days after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a limited public health emergency until Jan. 26.
The emergency order allows hospitals to change procedures under guidance from an administrative order issued by DC Health.
Hospitals have asked D.C. to implement crisis standards of care, allowing hospitals to have more patients per staff member.
Hospitals also asked for ways to ease the burden on health care workers, including allowing continued use of out-of-state medical licenses.
Some hospitals are seeing 25% staff shortages related to COVID-19, preventing them to use all of their capacity, the order says.