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Hospitals threaten to fire healthcare workers who speak out about lack of protective gear

While the government calls on retired healthcare professionals to return to work and help with the overwhelming number of cases, some hospitals are letting go of staff who speak out about their dangerous working conditions.

Hospitals threaten to fire healthcare workers who speak out about lack of protective gear
Image Source: In this handout released by the U.S. Navy, Hospitalman Apprentice Kaylah Jenkins dons PPE during infection control training aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) (Photo by U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

Despite being our only hope and chance of surviving this pandemic, healthcare workers who are risking their lives on the frontlines of the fight against the novel coronavirus are now being threatened with unemployment. Following several reports about the fatal working conditions under which many doctors and nurses are currently working, hospitals are now reportedly threatening to fire those who publicize these dire circumstances. While the government has been forced to call on retired healthcare professionals to return to work and help with the overwhelming number of cases, some hospitals are letting go of staff who speak out against the dangerous shortage of protective equipment.


Speaking to Bloomberg, Ruth Schubert—a spokeswoman for the Washington State Nurses Association—said: "Hospitals are muzzling nurses and other health-care workers in an attempt to preserve their image. It is outrageous." She added that health-care workers "must have the ability to tell the public what is really going on inside the facilities where they are caring for" those infected with the Coronavirus. Although medical staff have traditionally been bound by strict media guidelines to protect patient privacy, the pandemic has ushered in a new era, Schubert said.


One of the main reasons to allow healthcare workers to reveal the reality of their working conditions is to prepare other nurses and doctors for the looming onslaught of positive cases. Publicizing the alarming shortage of personal protective equipment or PPE will also encourage donations of the much-needed equipment which is vital to protecting healthcare workers from being infected and in turn infecting other patients as well as their families when they go home. These professionals have so far played a key role in alerting the world about the devastating impact of the Coronavirus with a doctor in China raising one of the earliest alarms about the mysterious new illness in late December.


His online chatroom warning made headlines across the globe, following which he was reprimanded and forced to sign a police statement that the post was illegal. He later contracted the disease from a patient and died. Glenn Cohen, faculty director of Harvard Law School’s bioethics center, said that healthcare professionals need to be able to voice their concerns during this crisis. "It is good and appropriate for health-care workers to be able to express their own fears and concerns, especially when expressing that might get them better protection," he said.


Cohen speculates that the hospitals threatening to fire those who speak out might be trying to limit reputational damage because "when health-care workers say they are not being protected, the public gets very upset at the hospital system." Although privacy laws only prohibit healthcare professionals from disclosing specific patient information and not general working conditions, NYU Langone Health employees on Friday received a notice informing them that anyone who talked to the media without authorization would be "subject to disciplinary action, including termination.”


Jim Mandler, a spokesman for NYU Langone Health, claimed the policy was to protect both patient and staff confidentiality. "Because information is constantly evolving, it is in the best interest of our staff and the institution that only those with the most updated information are permitted to address these issues with the media," he said. The Montefiore Health System's staff, who are required to get permission before speaking publicly, received a similar newsletter earlier this month, reminding them that all media requests “must be shared and vetted” by the public relations department. "Associates are not authorized to interact with reporters or speak on behalf of the institution in any capacity, without pre-approval," the policy states.



These measures have already cost some their jobs. Lauri Mazurkiewicz, who was a nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago, was fired after emailing colleagues that she wanted to wear a more protective mask while on duty. "A lot of hospitals are lying to their workers and saying that simple masks are sufficient and nurses are getting sick and they are dying," she said. "I didn’t want to get infected because I’m not wearing the proper mask and then spread it to my patients and my family," added the 46-year-old who has now filed wrongful termination lawsuit. 


Nisha Mehta, a 38-year radiologist from Charlotte, North Carolina, who runs two Facebook groups for physicians, revealed that many have expressed frustration at being barred from speaking publically about their current reality. "I'm hearing widespread stories from physicians across the country and they are all saying: 'We have these stories that we think are important to get out, but we are being told by our hospital systems that we are not allowed to speak to the press, and if we do so there will be extreme consequences,'" she said. "The public needs to hear these stories and other physicians need to hear them to be warned against what’s coming. It’s so important that everyone understands how bad this is going to get."


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