Nurses strike to protest Ebola preparedness

About 20,000 nurses walked off the job today in California as part of a two-day series of events across the country organized by National Nurses United. The country’s largest such union is aiming to draw attention to what it sees as inadequate preparation at most hospitals to treat Ebola cases.

“Nurses, who have been willing to stand by the patients whether it’s the flu, whether it’s Ebola, whether it’s cancer, are now being asked to put themselves in harm’s way unprotected, unguarded,” said NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro, in a statement.

Dr. Craig Spencer free of Ebola virus

The NNU has targeted Kaiser Permanente, the biggest nonprofit health insurer in the U.S., over what it claims is an “erosion in patient care.” The strike affected 86 Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics along with two other California hospitals. Another 400 registered nurses in Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., are set to walk off the job tomorrow.

The organization is demanding that nurses and other care givers who interact with Ebola patients be given full-body hazmat suits that leaves no skin exposed or unprotected, along with air-purifying respirators that meet stringent standards of the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health.

The issue of how hospitals in the U.S. should care for Ebola patients has become highly controversial since nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson became ill with Ebola. They were among those who cared for Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who became the first person in America to die of the disease.

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Along with Dr. Craig Spencer, who was stricken with Ebola after treating patients in Africa, both Pham and Vinson have since recovered. Although no other U.S. cases have been reported since then, the NNU argues that more needs to be done to protect health care workers against the often-deadly disease.

The American Hospital Association says its members have learned how to better care for Ebola patients, and it argues that the safety of its employees and patients is of paramount concern. Not surprisingly, this isn’t satisfying the NNU.

“Most hospitals in the U.S. are parts of corporate chains whose prime directive is their profit margins,” said Chuck Idelson, a union spokesman, adding that “unless you give them a specific directive ... they will go for the cheapest way” to protect workers’ and patients’ safety.

As a result of the labor action, Kaiser Permanente has rescheduled some elective procedures and nonurgent appointments. It otherwise expects to operate under a normal schedule. The company, which has set up an Ebola command center to coordinate employee training, denied the union’s claims that it was putting nurses who care for Ebola patients at risk.

“To the public, the union is claiming this strike is about Ebola. But the fact is Kaiser Permanente teams have been working on preparations for Ebola non-stop,” wrote Kaiser spokesman Ted Carr in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. “We are doing everything possible to ensure the safety of each nurse, physician and staff member who may be called upon to provide compassionate, high-quality care for a patient with the Ebola virus.”

Kaiser also noted that it was “particularly irresponsible” for the union to call a strike just as flu season was starting. Influenza is big deal for hospitals and kills thousands of people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The NNU rejects this criticism, and accused Kaiser of putting profits ahead of patients.

“That’s what’s really disgraceful,” union spokesperson Idelson said.

Ebola can crate a quandary for nurses who are motivated by a desire to help their patients and also feel compelled to speak out against what they consider to be unsafe working conditions, according to Dr. Cynda Rushton, a bioethicist at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

“Things like strikes can create a tension between their job to care for their current patients and their obligations to help their future patients,” she said, adding that she wasn’t taking a position on the NNU action.

Other events the NNU is organizing include a vigil outside the White House, rallies in Chicago and New York City, and gatherings in the state capitols of Michigan and Minnesota.