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Nurses Say Continuing Personnel Shortages Beset COVID Care Workers

SAN JOSE (KPIX) -- Two registered nurses, who work more than 100 miles apart, claim they tried to warn hospital staff to prepare for the pandemic last year but their warnings fell on deaf ears.

"I was actually the first nurse who had a COVID patient," said San Leandro Hospital registered nurse and California Nurses Association board member Mawata Kamara. "There was no real process. We had to call the state at that time and then the state told us she has a low probability, we have to send this patient home. We were not prepared. It was distressing as a nurse."

Kamara said she remembers having conversations about the need to hire and train more nurses.

"We saw how many people were dying in other countries," she said. "Why did we feel that we were going to be immune to that experience."

"What is the preparation, what is the plan," said Kaiser Roseville registered nurse Catherine Kennedy.

Then patient after patient began showing up and testing positive for COVID-19.

RELATED: Backlash Against Health Care Workers Adds to Pandemic's Physical and Emotional Toll

That's when Kennedy, the president of the California Nurses Association president and a member of the National Nurses Organizing Committee, saw the true test of how prepared -- or unprepared -- Kaiser was in dealing with a pandemic.

Both Kennedy and Kamara said they were not immune to the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment.

"The PPE was locked up," Kamara said. "And we had to deal with N95 versus no N95. We were reusing them. I've been a nurse since 2008. I know I've never ever heard about reusing."

"They were never meant to be used and reused because, years ago, you reuse something you were disciplined for something like that," said Kennedy. "Now all of a sudden it's OK."

She said that some hospitals continue to deal with PPE that is not readily available.

"It's exhausting making sure you have what you need, not having to look around and say, 'Hey manager, I need this,' instead of having it readily available for you," Kennedy said. "It's important for the administration, the hospital industry, to understand that our lives matter."

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, the nurses said now they're dealing with a severe shortage in staffing, which they say is just as unsafe as the PPE issues.

"We had one nurse doing the jobs of three people," Kamara said. "That's dangerous, that's dangerous. One person should not be doing the job of three people."

According to a database created by journalists at The Guardian, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 3,607 health care workers. The CDC doesn't track this statistic.

Now registered nurses fear working conditions may only get worse as COVID cases climb, they deal with a shortage of staff and nurses tire of the toll of the pandemic.

"Every day I get these calls about picking up more hours," said Kamara. "I've been in many conversations where nurses just don't want to do it anymore, they don't want to do it. It's too much."

"Nurses are getting frustrated to the point where they may do their two-to-three shifts per week and no more," Kennedy said. "There are those that are deciding to retire early."

Kamara said they're now having to put people in hallways once again and there are talks about opening up more rooms to deal with the recent surge. This time they're not only dealing with staffing issues but also patients who are more combative.

"We are seeing an increase in volatile behavior whether it's the patient or the visitor," said Kennedy.

"I trust science and, even though people in your neighborhood may be telling you something different, what I'm seeing at the hospital is different," Kamara said. "I've seen younger people who thought they'd be OK and went out and came back, gave it to their grandma and now their grandma is dying. It breaks my heart that we've gotten to the point where there's so much distrust in health care."

Kaiser Roseville said in a statement the hospital does not have a current shortage in PPE and acknowledged the work that nurses have done in the last year and a half. San Leandro Hospital also released a statement and acknowledged the shortage in PPE in the beginning of the pandemic as well as the current shortage of nurses going on nationwide.

Both hospitals said they've provided healthcare workers with resources, including mental health services.

But Kennedy and Kamara said they believe a lot of what happened last year could have been prevented.

"We feel like hospitals should've done better to prepare," Kamara said. "We're the ones taking the hit for it while they're calling us heroes."

"Making the employer understand that we don't want to be heroes, we want to be able to go home to our families, to our community," Kennedy said.

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