Tampa Bay Times | Op-Ed by VP Bob Gibson: As Florida’s peak looms, healthcare workers need masks and gloves now

April 16, 2020

Bob Gibson 4-16-2020 400 X 549.jpgThe following opinion column written by 1199SEIU Vice President Bob Gibson was published in the Tampa Bay Times:

We’re more than a week away from the projected peak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Tampa Bay and the state, but more than 20,000 Floridians already have tested positive and nearly 500 have died from the highly contagious virus. And healthcare workers, on the critical front lines to defend public health, presently are forced to provide care while facing dangerous shortages of masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

Without decisive action from federal, state and local officials, these factors point to a disastrous outcome once the surge of COVID-19 begins. The spike is estimated to strike April 21, according to researchers at the University of Washington.

This crisis was created by slow and incompetent preparation, if not deception, by the Trump administration, and no amount of grandstanding or TV briefings will fix it. Instead, we need honest action and solutions from our elected officials before it’s too late.

The priority is PPE. Shortages are forcing hospitals and nursing homes to use untested practices — reuse/reconditioning of equipment, non-standard and homemade masks, or working with none at all.

We must have universal masking — every healthcare worker with direct access to patients should be provided with Level 1 surgical masks. Those with more risk of exposure to COVID-19 patients must be provided with N95 respirators.

Our union of healthcare workers have called on all levels of government to take immediate and effective action toward the manufacture and distribution of PPE so that every worker in every setting receives PPE reflective of best practices.

Where shortages force hospitals and nursing homes to fall back on suboptimal protocol, employers must better explain what they are doing and why, and what steps are under way to return to proper procedure.

Our caregivers need to be tested for COVID-19. A shortage of kits is another failure of this administration. Once these become more available, every worker with contact to the public must undergo regular monitoring.

Healthcare institutions have received a substantial portion of the $2 trillion governmental stimulus and 6.2 percent payroll tax relief. This funding should support caregivers, including paid sick time for employees who are quarantined, and hazard pay for frontline staff. Institutions must find ways to keep employees on payroll, and provide cross training and education so that skilled workers are available when the pandemic reaches its peak.

Our state must fix its broken unemployment insurance system, as well, so all workers – healthcare or otherwise—can provide for their families.

Remember, these dedicated healthcare workers, once they leave their shifts, have children, spouses and other loved ones waiting at home. Fear and risk are enormous for these families today.

Nursing home workers have it particularly hard. Among the lowest paid with limited health benefits and sick time, they face severe challenges in this crisis. PPE shortages in their facilities are even more acute than in hospitals, placing their elderly patients – who are most vulnerable to the virus – at even greater peril. With our region’s vast senior population, we are at special risk of tragedy.

Seniors have already died in facilities here due to COVID-19, and many of our union and non-union workers have become sick.

If caregivers start falling in large numbers due to PPE shortages and other system shortfalls, who will take care of the rest of us? It’s an extremely frightening but realistic question that can’t be downplayed or ignored (again).

As we approach the peak of COVID-19, we all must demand from our elected officials must move to immediately to reverse their mistakes, protect our caregivers and help preserve the well-being of the public during the coming surge and beyond.

Bob Gibson is vice president and Tampa regional coordinator of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest healthcare union in the country representing more than 450,000 nurses and healthcare workers nationwide, including more than 24,000 in Florida. Our nurses, certified nursing assistants and other healthcare workers care for Florida families in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities throughout the state.