More than 100 nurses gathered on the steps of the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center today to protest what they say are unsafe practices in the handling of swine flu patients.
The nurses said they are concerned about being improperly exposed to the H1N1 virus, which jeopardizes their own safety and the safety of the public.
“It’s our job to stand up for health care in this country and community,” said James Darby, the chief nurses’ representative at UCSF. “It’s our responsibility to stand up for our patients’ rights. At the end of the day, the nurses are the ones taking care of patients.”
The California Nurses Association organized today’s protest, and members want the language in their contracts to be changed to codify stricter safety standards. Protesters wore surgical masks and carried signs that read, “Nurses and patients demand swine flu protection.”
A nurse in Sacramento died July 17 after she was exposed to swine flu, according to the CNA. They also said that two weeks ago, another nurse at UCSF was allegedly fired for speaking out against the hospital’s handling of swine flu exposure.
Darby said the UCSF nurse was terminated two days before her six-month probation period ended, even though management did not express any dissatisfaction with her performance at her three-month meeting.
The nurse treated a patient with H1N1 and began to experience symptoms, so she had a sample taken, Darby said. The sample was then thrown out, and the nurse was unable to file for workers’ compensation. When she complained about the procedure, she was fired, Darby said.
“They told her she wasn’t a ‘good fit,'” he said. “Usually when there are questions about somebody, they come to me and discuss extending the probation period, but that didn’t happen here.”
Officials at UCSF Medical Center said in a statement, “Allegations by CNA that a UCSF nurse was terminated because of comments made about unsafe patient care practices related to H1N1 are unfounded. The individual … was released due to performance factors that occurred during this period.”
The statement also said officials are investigating the grievance CNA filed on behalf of the nurse.
Nurses, however, said they are also concerned about standardized practices, including a lack of training and equipment.
Darby said he has seen nurses wearing re-used masks, and nurses are often understaffed. A nurse might have one patient in isolation and three who are not, which means the nurse is constantly moving between the two environments and changing outerwear. This makes contamination more likely, he said.
Scott Stanley, a registered nurse in the radiology department, said he used to work in the emergency room and didn’t see enough emphasis on prevention there.
He said there weren’t seminars or training exercises for identifying flu symptoms and using personnel protective equipment, which means emergency room nurses who were exposed to the flu could then expose other patients and health care workers.
UCSF’s official statement denies any systemic problems, saying there has been extensive assessment and planning related to H1N1. It says there is adequate safety gear in place for all patient-care employees, as well as “stringent infection control procedures that are practiced at all times.”