This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma.
In military jargon, soldiers who deploy first into a war zone are said to be at “the tip of the spear.”
In Washington’s war against COVID-19, nurses and other front-line hospital workers are at the tip of a spear, as well — different, but no less menacing.
The least that health care and public policy leaders can do is ensure these professionals are fully and fairly paid for their courageous work in the trenches.
A dispute between Tacoma nurses and management at CHI Franciscan health system, which arose in the wake of a COVID outbreak at St. Joseph Medical Center, figures to be a litmus test. It will help determine how hospital workers are taken care of, who pays to make them whole and how many are available to report to work.
We urge a speedy resolution. COVID infections are spiking to record levels, and hospital beds are filling up.
Nurses care daily for a rising number of patients who test positive; in the past week COVID has accounted for 6 to 7 percent of Pierce County hospital capacity, the highest in months. Nurses also care for an unknown number of patients who are infected, asymptomatic and undiagnosed.
They insert tubes, administer medication, help patients to the toilet, pick them up when they fall. They awkwardly don and doff personal protective equipment, going in and out of rooms while caring for multiple patients.
Keeping these professionals healthy, clearheaded and ready to work is a key to defeating this virus.
“It’s not only the beds that are available, it’s the number of staff that are available, and this is challenging,” Dr. Anthony Chen, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department director, said at a high-alert state media briefing on Tuesday. “I worry about my medical colleagues in clinics and hospitals. They’re on the front lines. They risk infection daily and they’re facing burnout.”
Local concerns have grown recently with outbreaks at St. Joseph and Auburn Medical Center. At least 23 workers tested positive at St. Joseph; roughly 3,000 tests were administered after an initial outbreak on the seventh floor. At least five staff tested positive at the Auburn hospital, which is testing more than 200 workers in the fourth-floor unit.
Broad surveillance testing by CHI Franciscan, which runs St. Joe’s, and MultiCare Health System, which runs Auburn, is sensible.
But nurses and their union representatives are raising valid questions about the effects of the mandatory testing policy at St. Joe’s. The Washington State Nurses Association sent a letter to CHI Franciscan on Nov. 4, demanding more information.
Front-line hospital workers deserve the assurance of receiving full and fair pay if they contract a virus that has infiltrated their workplace. That means they shouldn’t have to draw down personal sick leave or vacation balances — hours they may have depleted or haven’t accrued.
Hospital administrators shouldn’t require proof that an infection happened on the job before paying administrative leave. With the countless patient interactions nurses have on every shift, such proof may be impossible, even with contact-tracing efforts.
“The exposure should be assumed that it was acquired at work,” Christine Watt, senior labor consultant for the WSNA, told us this week. “To deny that it’s workplace exposure just doesn’t make sense.”
She’ll get no argument from us, and we commend CHI Franciscan for agreeing to meet on these issues.
The good news in Washington? Safeguards are in place to ensure sidelined workers aren’t left in the lurch. Worker’s compensation funds and the state’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave benefits are available to most employees who can’t work or are ordered to stay home.
Nurses in the MultiCare system who test positive for COVID are made whole through a combination of state benefits and “topping off” through administrative pay. Only as a last resort must they tap their earned time-off bank, a MultiCare spokesperson told us.
And Franciscan? “We have a number of resources available to employees who have experienced reduced hours due to pandemic conditions,” Cary Evans, vice president for communications and government affairs, said in a statement. This includes financial assistance and full medical insurance coverage in some cases.
Even so, a piecemeal system can affect worker morale. Action may be needed at the state level. Should Washington explore pandemic-related paid leave for hospital and nursing home workers, like Minnesota is considering? The WSNA told us it’s not yet ready to discuss proposals for the 2020 Legislature.
But this much is certain: Our front-line caregivers must feel well cared for. Disease exposure is an occupational hazard; financial exposure need not be.
Washington is bracing for a long winter siege of coronavirus and regular flu. We dare not risk losing ground at the tip of the spear.