Nurses confront state, hospitals over COVID health care hazards

A nurse at a protest at Alameda Hospital in 2020 seeking improved medical protective equipment. (Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald, via Shutterstock)

On the front line of health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, registered nurse members of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United are pushing for more employer accountability tied to a crisis of staffing and unsafe workplaces.

In particular, the CNA/NNU wants optimal workplace protections. The union, which represents about 100,000 registered nurses in California, says the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has not adopted such workplace protections.

The CDPH, noting the “critical staffing shortages currently being experienced across the health care continuum, said health care providers (HCPs) “who have been exposed and are asymptomatic may return to work immediately without quarantine and without testing. These HCPs must wear an N95 respirator for source control.”

“Our workforce challenges are a national emergency that demands immediate attention.” — Zenei Triunfo-Cortez

The CDPH workplace guidelines followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s shortening of the quarantine period late last month.

But NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, is skeptical of the CDHP’s position.

“Everyone will need medical care at some point in their lives,” she said in a statement. “They have cut corners on safe staffing since long before COVID-19, and with the pandemic still in full swing, they are driving desperately needed nurses away from the profession.”

The NNU/CNA, in rallies around California and the U.S., knocked the greed of employers and demanded safe staffing immediately on Jan. 13.

Robyn Begley, the senior vice president and chief nursing officer for the American Hospital Association (AHA),  told Capitol Weekly in an email:  “As the pandemic enters year three, the women and men of America’s hospitals and health systems have been on the frontlines of the battle against a novel, once-in-a-century virus. Once again facing a dramatic surge in caseloads spurred by the omicron and delta variants and in many cases accompanied by a staffing shortage for patients in hospital beds — the relentless and crushing workload on our steadfast caregivers cannot continue indefinitely.”

“Our workforce challenges are a national emergency that demands immediate attention,” she added.

A survey of thousands of RNs from across the U.S. found that 82.5 percent of respondents reported that at least half of their work shifts had unsafe staffing.

How the resolution of the national workplace emergency plays out is what is at stake. A case in point is the AHA and CNA/NNU disagreeing on where things need to go next for patient and HCP safety.

According to the union, the term “nursing shortage,” conceals more than it reveals relative to retaining HCPs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the CNA/NNU, the shortage of nurses is a deficit of them unwilling to risk their licenses or patient safety under unsafe work conditions that profit-driven employers are imposing. Private investors owned 24% of U.S. hospitals in 2021, according to the American Hospital Association. The numbers are from 2019, well before the coronavirus pandemic became a new normal.

An NNU survey of thousands of RNs from across the U.S. last October to December found that 82.5 percent of respondents reported that at least half of their work shifts had unsafe staffing. The recent NNU survey also found that 68 percent of respondents said that they have considered leaving their position.

“The answer to nurses unwilling to work in unsafe conditions is never to overload the remaining nurses with more patients and, in states where it is not prohibited, force them to work mandatory overtime,”

“The solution we can start implementing today is for hospitals to immediately staff up every unit, every shift, and create a safe, sustainable work environment where nurses can feel confident about their ability to provide the best nursing care possible for their patients,” said Triunfo-Cortez.

Editor’s Note: Seth Sandronsky reports regularly for Capitol Weekly. Contact him at

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