Union warns of Ebola nightmare for nurses

The nation’s largest nurses union is calling on President Obama to impose strict national standards to protect healthcare workers from the deadly Ebola virus, pointing to a lack of safety protocols.

The appeal Wednesday for swift executive action comes as the second Ebola diagnosis of a U.S. healthcare worker stokes fresh fears among employee advocates and raises questions about the scope of the federal government’s response to the crisis.

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“This month has been a nightmare for the nurses across the nation,” National Nurses United (NNU) Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro said. “They’re looking for answers.”

The group is urging Obama to direct federal health and safety agencies to set forth additional regulations for the use of personal protection and hazardous materials suits by workers who come into contact with patients who could have Ebola. 

The union is also seeking new requirements for interactive training for nurses.

“The only way to adequately confront [the] Ebola crisis ... is for the President to invoke his executive authority to mandate uniform, national standards and protocols that all hospitals must follow to safely protect patients, all healthcare workers, and the public,” the group said.

The nurses group joined other employee advocates and labor unions calling for increased protections for workers in hospitals and airports who could be exposed to the disease that has killed thousands of Africans in recent months before surfacing in the United States.

Among them is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which heard concerns earlier in the week from airport employees about the threat of exposure from U.S.-bound international travelers.

The union also cited threats to other service employees and healthcare workers.

“The Ebola virus presents a new and different challenge with protocols that are intensive and require the right equipment, regular drills and enhanced staffing,” said Mary Kay Henry, SEIU president.

Administration officials sought Wednesday to assuage fears of an outbreak, ramping up containment efforts at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital and detailing additional federal steps taken to keep the virus from spreading further.

Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said a bolstered team of federal personnel is working with staff at the hospital around the clock.

He told reporters during a briefing that there are “intensive efforts under way to train, retrain and supervise staff.”

“Ebola is hard to fight, but we know how to fight it and we know how to beat it.”

Still, Frieden acknowledged there was “a lot of variability” in the way health workers at the hospital used personal protective equipment when they were near the country’s first Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, who died last week.

Paul Millus, an employment lawyer at the firm Meyer Suozzi, noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) already has rules on its books setting standards for personal protection equipment, blood-borne pathogen exposure and respiratory protections.

Though he acknowledged that the latter is meant for airborne diseases — which Ebola is not — he said the protections should be implemented as a precaution, considering the deadly nature of the virus.

“Treat it as if it’s airborne because that’s the highest level of protection afforded to healthcare workers,” he said. “We’re dealing now with a disease that has a 70 percent kill-rate.”

OSHA personnel are part of the federal team on the ground in Dallas, and have joined the CDC and state authorities in their investigation, agency spokesman Jesse Lawder said.

But the agency is not conducting an independent probe.

“OSHA is not pursuing its own enforcement inspection,” Lawder said.

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital has no inspection history over the last 10 years, he added.

Millus, who represents both employees and employers, said OSHA should be taking a more assertive role in seeing that hospitals follow a uniform standard, rather than relying on hospitals to develop their own plans.

“They are asking way too much of a local hospital system,” he said. “They can absolutely require standards be met to address this.”