Coronavirus testing for public-hospital employees has begun and will be open to all staff later this month, but unions representing front-line staff questioned whether the tests were designed solely to protect their members.
Testing began April 1 for NYC Health + Hospitals workers who were symptomatic and isolating at home. Employees who had no symptoms and were providing direct care to COVID-19 patients were tested starting April 8. Hospital workers with no symptoms who have family members at home who have tested positive for the virus may be checked starting April 15, and testing will be open to all H+H staff April 22.
At Center of Pandemic
The public-hospital system has been at the center of the pandemic, with a surge in coronavirus cases and 13 deaths during a 24-hour period at Elmhurst Hospital.
District Council 37 Local 420 President Carmen Charles, who represents Respiratory Therapy Technicians, Nurses Aides, Institutional Aides and other hospital employees, said she was happy they could finally be tested.
“Some of my members are very paranoid right now, and I don’t blame them,” she said during a phone interview.
But she questioned why it took so long to test them, as well as why the process was being phased in.
“I think it’s about time. Actually, it’s a little bit late,” Ms. Charles said. “They just need to go ahead and test everybody.”
'Can't Do All at Once'
H+H officials pointed to the limited number of tests as the reason testing was being phased-in.
“Because we cannot do all the tests at once, we are prioritizing employees with symptoms,” said Theodore Long, H+H’s Vice President of Ambulatory Care.
DC 37 Local 768 President Fitz Reid, who represents thousands of H+H workers including Public Health Advisors and Respiratory Therapists, was glad to hear that his members could start being tested but concerned about how the results would be used.
"The back hand of this is that they could use this to not protect workers, because they've already done nothing to protect workers," he said during a phone interview.
Mr. Reid noted that H+H employees had been required to work even when they were sick. H+H policy states that employees showing symptoms of coronavirus, including a fever, must isolate at home for seven days. Once an employee’s fever has been gone for three days, they can return to work.
Press for 14-Day Leaves
But health-care unions including the New York State Nurses Association have been fighting to get 14 sick days for those showing symptoms.
“There are workers who are known positives and have been forced to go to work, so what’s the point of testing now?” Mr. Reid asked.
NYC Health + Hospitals has also encouraged staff to reuse N95 respirators—used to protect health-care workers from contracting the virus—for five days—four longer than previously recommended—due to shortages. Health-care facilities across the city received 1.2 million N95 masks April 7, Mayor de Blasio announced.
Mr. Reid worried that the purpose of the tests was for H+H to identify which employees already had COVID-19 and recovered from it, in the event that the N95 respirators run out. Recovered patients have antibodies in their blood, which health experts believe provide them immunity.
Substitute for PPE?
Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known as “Strategies for Optimizing the Supply of N95 Respirators during the COVID-19 Response,” recommended that if N95 respirators were to run out, known or suspected coronavirus patients should be treated by staff “who have clinically recovered from COVID-19 and may have some protective immunity to preferentially provide care.”
“I suspect they are using testing as a study of people who have already recovered,” Mr. Reid said. “I’m sure they’re forecasting potentially not having personal protective equipment, so if they can expose who has already had it, they can put those people to work.”
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