CHICAGO (CBS) — Nurses in Chicago and across the country are taking action on Thursday to call more attention to the staffing crisis at many hospitals.
Members of National Nurses United (NNU) are demanding hospitals take steps to increase staffing, accusing their employers of cutting corners since before the pandemic, driving nurses away from the profession because they have been overworked and forced to work in unsafe conditions.
They want safe staffing levels and protections on the job.
Nurses rallied outside Stroger Hospital of Cook County, in the heart of the Illinois Medical District, to stand up against what they say is a major crisis in the hospital industry. They said they can’t treat patients safely when they’re burned out.
“This is to bring light to the fact that staffing is an issue, which pretty much is manufactured or fabricated by the hospitals themselves; when they don’t provide nurses with proper equipment, appropriate staffing, working conditions,” said Falguni Dave, an ICU nurse at Stroger Hospital.
NNU is staging similar rallies across the country on Thursday, at a time when the hospital system has been strained by the Omicron surge of the pandemic, with new cases and hospitalizations reaching levels never seen before during the time of COVID-19.
This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 848,028 healthcare workers across the country have contracted COVID-19.
CBS 2’s Charlie De Mar spoke Wednesday night to a nurse who said she has been thinking about leaving the profession since the start of the pandemic.
Illinois continues to set records for new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Coronavirus-related deaths are reaching heights not seen in almost a year.
De Mar asked Marie Lafontant, a nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Center, how she is holding up personally.
“It’s been challenging,” Lafontant siad. “Emotionally and physically, it’s had.”
Lafontant, a nurse of nearly 40 years, has spent the last two decades at the U of C.
“When I first started as a young nurse, it was during the AIDS epidemic,” she said. “But right now, this is the worst I have ever seen.”
The veteran health care worker said this current pandemic has pushed her and some colleagues to their limits – and some have quit due to understaffing and safety concerns. The veteran nurse even considered leaving the job herself.
“We’re constantly working short” Lafontant said. “We’re angry because people are not taking precautions.”
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike also emphasized the difficulties health care workers are now encountering.
“Our health care workers are burning the candle at both ends – and in the middle as well,” she said.
Ezike said only 9 percent of ICU beds are available in Illinois — creating long wait times for anyone who needs a bed.
Brian Dunleavy brought his 83-year-old brother, Ed, to Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital for a non-COVID issue – and says he waited 17 hours before he was treated.
“No one asked him if he was hungry – nothing,” Dunleavy said. “He slept in a wheelchair, and he scrounged up from someone some potato chips.
“As nurses, we are constantly going out there and saying that we need more people at the bedside,” added Lafontant.
The largest union representing nurses is also frustrated that certain Occupational Safety and Health Administration protections are set to expire for healthcare workers – and they also question the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on isolation times.
The nurses’ rally comes one day after Gov. JB Pritzker announced the state is deploying more than 2,000 contract healthcare workers statewide to help meet the huge demand at overwhelmed hospitals.
Pritzker said Wednesday that the state is bringing in 2.048 contract healthcare workers across the state to help relieve the pressure on hospitals amid the latest surge of the pandemic, fueled by the virulent Omicron variant.
The governor said there are already 919 of those healthcare workers helping staff hospitals that have been hit hardest by COVID-19 cases, with another 552 arriving at hospitals by next Friday.
The state also has created “COVID reaction teams” to respond quickly to crisis situations at hospitals and other healthcare facilities, with 237 healthcare workers in the field already, and another 340 arriving over the next 10 days.
More personnel are being made available to hospitals that have requested federal assistance, including 12 healthcare workers helping at Rockford hospitals thanks to aid provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Out of state healthcare workers also are able to continue working in Illinois during the pandemic to help with treatment of all types of patients, and doctors who got their training overseas can now provide assistance to licensed physicians at Illinois healthcare facilities, according to Pritzker.