Congress Hears Tales of Front-Line Workers Risking It All

Essential workers in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis are already worried about the next battle should a major outbreak reignite this fall.

Nurses and medical workers react as police officers and pedestrians cheer them outside Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City last month. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Leilani Jordan was a 27-year-old grocery clerk when she died in her mother’s arms after contracting Covid-19. On Thursday, her story was one of several Congress heard about those working without protection on the front lines of the pandemic.

Zenobia Shepherd told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis that her daughter Leilani, who had cerebral palsy, took pride in working at the Giant grocery store in Largo, Maryland, where she especially enjoyed helping those who were disabled or elderly.

“‘Mommy, I want to go to work. No one is showing up. I want to help the elderly,’” Shepherd recalled her daughter saying, choking back tears as she testified remotely to the committee.

When the pandemic gripped Maryland, her daughter’s employer did not have gloves, masks or hand sanitizer available to workers, or disinfectant to clean the store or wipe down carts.

Now Leilani is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where veterans who have fought conventional wars are interred.

“I miss her so much,” Shepherd said. “We have to do better to keep people safe, especially our seniors and the disabled.”

For committee Chairman Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., doing better is the point of giving voice to people like Shepherd and others who have direct experience with the result of the Trump administration’s decentralized approach to testing and personal protective equipment, or PPE for short.

“It is unacceptable that four months into this crisis, many essential workers still face shortages of critical supplies,” Clyburn said.

Talisa Hardin, a registered nurse at the University of Chicago Medical Center and member of the union National Nurses United, said since the pandemic began, the stock of PPE remains insufficient at best or downright empty at worst at her hospital.

The lack of protections there, she said, forced her to send her daughter to live with her mother for the last five weeks.

Hardin said she and other nurses grimly accept they will likely become infected because they cannot socially distance in crowded ICUs or emergency rooms feasibly.

A nurse holds a vial and a swab at a drive-up coronavirus testing station in Seattle last month. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

With each wave of patients, every interaction is a serious risk when the health care workers must engage without proper gear and without the promise of regular testing for themselves to track and contain the spread.

“If I could be tested, if more workers could be tested, and get those results back faster, some of the things that make life harder right now would go away,” Hardin said.

A spokesperson for the hospital told Courthouse News in an email Friday that “all necessary PPE continues to remain immediately available to all units by pager. No clinician, including nurses, have ever gone without a critical piece of equipment.”

Specific to Hardin’s allegations, the spokesperson said that the burn unit where she worked “has never been a Covid-positive cohort unit and using N95 masks is not necessary under CDC and other guidance.”

“All patients essentially are considered patients under investigation until proven otherwise,” the spokesperson added.

They added, “N95 and other effective and approved alternatives have always been available on Covid-positive units and elsewhere as indicated. Staff cannot reuse the masks once they are removed and we have repeatedly trained staff not to use N95 masks once removed.”

According to the hospital, testing is available to any employee with respiratory or flu-like systems and while “the reality is no hospital has the ability to test everyone,” social distancing and wearing masks to limit infection is emphasized.

As of April, at least 9,000 health care workers became infected and 91 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 1.5 million Americans have been infected with the virus as of Thursday and over 93,000 are dead.

Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and public health researcher at Brown University in Rhode Island, said if her hospital could test every person coming through its doors with a result in 15 minutes, it would be “transformative” in identifying, isolating and defeating the virus.

But because the current national testing infrastructure is more hodgepodge than homogenous and PPE is still scaling up, health care workers face two battles: the one they are in the middle of now and the one looming ahead should a major outbreak reignite this fall, as predicted by the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“I do not think we are currently prepared for the second wave. We still lack adequate PPE in most hospitals throughout the country,” Ranney said.

“You may be heroes, but it doesn’t give your government the right to treat you as martyrs,” Representative Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, said during the hearing.  

As most states have begun lifting social distancing restrictions, the patchwork of rules varying from state to state makes the concept of returning to work disconcerting for people like Eric Colts, a bus driver for the Detroit Department of Transportation. His friend, Jason Hargrove, died of Covid-19 after a woman coughed openly on his bus.

“You have no way of practicing social distancing on a coach,” Colts said before calling the bus he drives a “40-foot incubator.”

The CDC gave transit workers suggestions for seating charts and they have tried to enforce them the best they can, he said.

“But that never works because people are still coming out with no masks,” Colts said.

Custodians like San Francisco resident Marcos Aranda wear latex gloves and painters masks at work and hope that is enough.

“I’m lucky, there are many janitors out there who work without PPE,” Aranda said.

The married father of six is not just anxious about his health, but also his livelihood. His company recently laid off 200 workers in a single day.

Though Congress has passed four relief packages so far, that isn’t enough in the face of so much uncertainty, he said.

Democrats on the committee say this is why they want to see the $3 trillion Heroes Act, passed in the House last week, approved by the Senate. The proposed fifth relief package includes a new round of direct $1,200 payments to most Americans plus $500 billion for states and $375 billion for local governments, among other measures.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has nixed the idea and signaled that he wants another relief, but with different provisions.

In an interview Thursday with The Hill, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin signaled negotiations for another relief bill will not likely begin for another three weeks. Congress is set to be on recess next week for the Memorial Day holiday.

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