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Conn. Union Health Workers Say Lack Of Protection Puts Everyone At Risk

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public

A national shortage of personal protective equipment has left states and individual providers scrambling to find new supplies as COVID-19 continues to spread.

Meanwhile, Connecticut health care workers are coming into direct contact with infected patients, and not just at the hospitals. Nurses and home health aides said rationing and reusing respirator masks, gloves, gowns and other equipment has been distressing. 

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“Although we understand the need to conserve it for the surge, it’s also not comforting to have to go into the rooms unprotected,” said Anne-Marie Cerra, a hospital nurse and member of the AFT Connecticut union.
Health care workers say they fear it’ll only get worse as the pandemic continues, putting themselves, their patients and their families at risk for disease.

“We have the right to be safe. We have the right to have the equipment we need,” Cerra said.

Health care professionals from AFT Connecticut and health care union SEIU 1199 expressed their concerns about a lack of protective equipment to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal during a virtual roundtable Tuesday.

Gov. Ned Lamont at a briefing later that day said the state has been continuously searching for new supplies of things like N95 respirator masks from manufacturers in Connecticut, the country and around the world, but “it’s coming in at a trickle.”

He said the state is placing orders when it finds supplies.

“And I’m telling everybody, three weeks is too late. Next week is too late. We need it now. We’ll take less now rather than a lot more a lot later,” Lamont said. “I know how serious this is. I know the risks people are taking, and we’re doing everything we can to keep you safe.”

But the incoming supply of personal protective equipment hasn’t matched the rate at which health care providers and facilities need it.

Martha Marx is a registered nurse at the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut, a nonprofit health care service provider, and member of AFT Connecticut. She and a team of professionals provide home health care, and they’ve recently been asked to wear the same surgical mask for multiple patient visits in order to preserve the supply of equipment.

“I wear that from house to house to house to the most vulnerable patients,” she said. “Two months ago, I would have been disciplined if I had done this. It is infection control 101.”

Marx said it’s been “hell” for the last month. Recently, she said an AFT union member who works in nursing and home health aide tested positive for the virus, and three more with symptoms are awaiting test results.

“They call me crying,” Marx said. “You know why they’re crying? Because they don’t know who their patients that they care so much for, who they’ve infected.”

Union leaders say a majority of health care workers outside hospital systems don’t have adequate protection.

Seth Winkleman, a nurse and SEIU 1199 union member, said he was working at the state Department of Developmental Services’ care facility in Torrington when he started to develop symptoms of the virus.

Winkleman tried to get a test -- both through the state and a private health care provider -- to confirm a diagnosis but said he was denied, even as a health worker. He remains in self-quarantine at home.

“Everyone else is not being tested, and we could be passing on this dangerous COVID disease to the people who are severely immunocompromised,” he said.

Winkleman said his 16-year-old daughter recently started showing symptoms of illness. He said it’s possible that he unknowingly passed his sickness to family members.

Health care workers said they have a right to feel safe in their jobs, and they should receive hazard pay if they continue to work in these conditions.

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