Listen to the Nurses: Up to 40% of Hospitals Not Ready for Swine Flu

08/31/2009 08:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When health facilities ignore the quality-of-care concerns of nurses, whether involving nurse-patient staffing ratios or infection control practices, people die or get ill needlessly.

Now, as reported by the AFL-CIO Now blog, those dangers now face patients who are expected to seek treatment for swine flu/H1N1 virus at many health care facilities, as shown by a new survey of 190 hospital in nine states from California to Maine. The study was done by by the California Nursing Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee.

And now there are early signs that hospitals are starting to fire some nurses who complain about dangerous conditions, the labor group says.

All this comes on top of a disturbing new report by a White House science advisory panel, which last week reported that up to 50 percent of the public could become infected, with as many as 90,000 people potentially dying from the disease.

That adds to as many as 200,000 patients a year who already die from medical mistakes and infections in hospitals each year, according a new series by The San Francisco Chronicle and Hearst Corporation, "Dead by Mistake"

So, given the threat of the pandemic and the ongoing crisis in safe hospital care, it's especially disturbing to see how widespread the lack of an effective response is in the nation's front-line facilities, endangering both patients and staff:

As we approach flu season, a survey of 190 health care facilities in nine states finds a

"disturbing number of our nation's healthcare facilities are not prepared for the coming H1N1/swine flu pandemic."

The survey...found wide gaps in safety gear, infection control training and post-exposure procedures.

* At more than one-fourth of the hospitals, nurses cite inadequate isolation of swine flu patients, increasing the risk of infection to others.

* Nurses at 15 percent of hospitals do not have access to the proper respirator masks, exposing nurses and patients to infection.
* At up to 40 percent of the hospitals, nurses are expected to re-use masks, in violation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Instead of responding to these vital concerns, healthcare facilities seem to be ignoring them or, in some cases, firing those bearing the bad news. As a result, according to the AFL-CIO Now blog and other news accounts, nurses took to the street in protest earlier in August in San Francisco:

More than 100 nurses, wearing surgical masks and carrying signs that read "Nurses and Patients Demand Swine Flu Protection," rallied Wednesday at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center to spotlight unsafe practices in treating H1N1 (swine) flu patients and protecting health care workers and other patients.

The nurses, members of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC), also protested the recent firing by UCSF of an RN who blew the whistle on unsafe patient care involving swine flu at the facility.

You can learn more about this crisis and the feeble health care industry's response to it at the new In These Times blog on workplace and labor issues.

Art Levine also co-hosts "The D'Antoni and Levine Show" on BlogTalk radio, and click here to listen to last week's interview with Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future on the political battle over the public option.