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First Responders Face Greater Risk as COVID-19 Cases Rise

Disclaimer: Out of fear of retaliation and an impact on her current standing at her place of employment, one source asked to retract her real name. For this purpose, the name Joan Evins was used when referring to the source.

Joan Evins, an x-ray technician at an outpatient center in Los Angeles County, feared for her colleague’s life. Her colleague—Charlene—is a technician with Scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that affects the skin and internal organs. Despite her health risks, Charlene was assigned by her supervisor to work with a patient that Evins was confident had COVID-19.

When Evins first evaluated the patient, the patient explained that her doctor had recently tested her for COVID-19 and that she was experiencing multiple symptoms of the virus. After Evins informed her supervisor, the supervisor proceeded to get personal protective equipment (PPE). Charlene, however, could not fit into the regular masks provided on site.

“My supervisor reaches up to grab the N95 mask, and I realize ‘crap Charlene can’t fit in that, her face is too small’ and I said ‘Ellie, did Charlene ever get her N95 Masks from the hospital’ and she said no. I had to do the patient,” said Evins.

Although healthcare workers are usually fitted for an N95 mask once a year, Evins explained that she had not been fitted with a mask for over six years at her outpatient center. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires all N95 masks to be properly fitted initially and annually to the employee’s face. According to OSHA, employers must meet the proper Respiratory Protection Standards “whenever N95s are required.” However, the administration recently relaxed measures in response to the pandemic and the subsequent shortage of PPE, allowing the reuse of N95s when alternatives are not available.

“When this first all happened, I raised my hand and said ‘send me to the hospital man. I’ll go work with these patients’ I’m not afraid of work. I’ll totally get in there and do what needs to be done, but the minute you don’t protect me, I’m out,” said Evins.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a shortage of protective gear. “We weren’t allowed to wear any masks. The masks for us were locked up,” said Barbara Snolinski, an x-ray technician that works at a hospital in San Bernardino County. When asked why this was the case, Evins responded that the hospital feared people would take the protective gear home and locked the PPE up to prevent theft.

In March, state governors and White House officials struggled to deal with the continuing shortage of PPE, with first responders compelled to reuse essentials as basic as gloves, masks, and gowns. Prior to the pandemic, China made half of the world’s face masks. After the outbreak, countries like China and Germany started hoarding masks. Additionally, even when masks are available, their scarcity has caused prices to skyrocket, putting more stress on hospitals. In response to rising cases and shortages of PPE, healthcare workers began protesting their conditions by asking for more PPE and protective measures.

Snolinski confirmed that the protection of first responders was worse towards the beginning of the pandemic. Snolinski gave an example of chaos towards the beginning of the pandemic of workers who had received their flu shot and carried stickers as a badge of confirmation. These workers were written up and reprimanded for wearing masks in the initial stages of the outbreak.

“We didn’t know what we were doing with this pandemic, and then they were finding out how contagious it was and how people were dying from it, now everyone is required to wear a mask,” said Snolinski.

A slew of new reports confirm that healthcare workers throughout the U.S. are being fired after raising health and safety concerns, which implies that there is likely to be a spike in wrongful termination lawsuits. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers cannot fire or discipline employees for raising health and safety concerns. OSHA, an agency created by this very statute, prevents employer retaliation involving: “firing or laying off, blacklisting, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, denying benefits, intimidation, making threats, reassignment, and reduction in pay or hours.” Medical workers are also protected by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees for collectively seeking better wages and conditions, whether through a union or without.

As people struggle to pay rent and survive amid rising unemployment, governors have started to reopen their states, some without retaining any social distancing restrictions. Before opening states and specific counties, the federal and state governments must consider the implications of a higher case count on the healthcare infrastructure. Without a proper plan to retain PPE protections and minimize stress on the system, healthcare practitioners will likely continue to be exposed to dangerous conditions and a choice between leaving work, standing up for better protection, or bearing the worst of the pandemic. Despite the legal protections of employment law, healthcare workers are still afraid of retaliation for raising concerns, and hospitals remain unprepared to handle the inevitable surge of coronavirus cases. The Defense Production Act does not alter the fact that the supply of PPE is extremely low, and it will be difficult for the U.S. government to revamp sluggish supply chains. Additionally, as in any market where supply is low and demand is high, N95 masks are now selling at a higher price than before. According to a report published in March by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General, hospitals will likely wait 3-6 months to obtain just one PPE order.

When asked how she would respond to increased cases and shortages, Evins replied, “I’m off now until July… [due to underlying health issues]… and I’m the one that kind of initiated that because I’m thinking these people are making decisions and they’re not really protecting the employee. The minute you stop protecting me as an employee, I’m out of there.”

Lana Green is a second-year Journalism and Political Science double-major in the School of Communications and the School of Public Affairs. She is a Managing Editor for the Agora.

Image courtesy Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

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