US nurses protest against Covid-19 working conditions

A member of the New York State Nurses Association holding up a sign in New York on Jan 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

CHICAGO (BLOOMBERG) - Chicago nurses joined colleagues across the country on Thursday (Jan 13) to protest against working conditions that they say have rapidly deteriorated as hordes of Covid-19 patients push hospitals to the limit.

Mr Scott Mechanic, 36, an emergency room nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Centre, said the problems stem from widespread labour shortages throughout the healthcare system and hospital leadership who are reluctant to provide assistance.

"We don't have food service people... we don't have supply chain people to deliver our most critical supplies, we don't have people to repair our equipment," Mr Mechanic said.

"But every job that doesn't get done by somebody else ends up falling to the bedside nurse. We're overwhelmed."

The protests, organised by National Nurses United, a labour union boasting 175,000 members nationwide, was part of a jam-packed day of action across 11 US states and Washington DC today "to demand the hospital industry invest in safe staffing, and to demand that President Biden follow through on his campaign promise to protect nurses and prioritise public health", according to the union.

In Chicago, members are still working and the action was part of their bargaining process, but other branches are striking.

The union plans to end the day with a candlelight vigil near the White House to honour the thousands of nurses who have died from Covid-19.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant is fuelling a surge in Covid-19 cases across the country and now accounts for 98 per cent of all cases, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

Hospitals have also sounded the alarm about staffing problems, insufficient resources and worsening conditions.

Health experts say that while the variant may cause less severe symptoms in people who are vaccinated and otherwise healthy, it is still extremely dangerous for people who are unvaccinated and may have other conditions.

At the hospital where Mr Mechanic works on Chicago's South Side, he said Covid-19 patients are just as sick as they have been throughout the pandemic.

The South Side is predominantly black, highlighting concerns about the devastating effect the pandemic has had on communities of colour.

"It's shocking how sick people are," Mr Mechanic said.

"They're still getting sick and dying of Covid-19 today. That hasn't changed."

Chicago estimates that 56 per cent of black residents have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, lagging white and Latino people in the city.

The CDC has recorded similar data, reporting that 54 per cent of black Americans have received one Covid-19 vaccine dose.

"At this point, I can't believe I'm still doing this," Mr Mechanic said.

"I'm still calling (patients') families and holding the phone to their ear while they gasp for air, knowing it's likely the last words they'll speak."

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