The New York State Nurses Association filed suits against the state health department and two hospitals Monday, alleging that the entities failed in their “core duty of protecting health care workers and the public at large.”
In the suits, first reported by POLITICO, the state’s largest nursing union alleges the health department issued guidance directing health care workers who contracted Covid-19 return to work after seven days, despite emergency regulations that allow them to stay home for two weeks. Nurses and other frontline workers told POLITICO that unless they could prove they had the virus with an actual test, some hospitals required them to use their accrued paid time off.
NYSNA also alleged that the state health department failed to enforce regulations around the safe use of personal protective equipment, which led to hundreds of members testing positive for the virus.
“Infected health care workers have become vectors of virus transmission to their families and the public at large,” according to the suit, which was filed Monday in state Supreme Court in Manhattan. “DOH’s actions have thus created a nuisance to public health, which, although acutely injurious to frontline nurses, has endangered the public at large.”
The state health department said it could not comment on pending litigation, but a spokesperson said they are “deeply grateful for the ongoing efforts of New York’s health care workers to reduce the spread of Covid-19 by testing people who may be infected and treating those who are most in need.”
Nurses across the state submitted affidavits in support of the lawsuits, sharing stories of inadequate protective equipment and attendance requirements they say fueled the spread of the virus.
Hilary Schneck, a registered nurse at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, said she was not given guidance from her hospital about how to sanitize her N95 mask and was denied access to PPE like head coverings due to shortages, according to her affidavit. Schneck said she continued to work in units that did not have proper infection controls and developed symptoms consistent with the novel coronavirus.
“VBMC informed me that as long as I did not have a temperature greater than 99.5, I would be expected to return to work within seven days of when I first began experiencing symptoms, even if I still had symptoms of Covid-19 on the date of my expected return,” she said.
Vassar Brothers, which was not included in the suit, did not immediately return a request for comment.
NYSNA also filed lawsuits against Montefiore Medical Center and Westchester County Health Care Corporation in federal court in Manhattan and state Supreme Court in Westchester, respectively.
Montefiore denied frontline workers equipment like N95 masks in early March, despite having it available, according to an affidavit from a nurse practitioner.
“We were instructed that we could only wear a surgical mask, which is not adequate protection against Covid-19, if the patient presented with a cough,” said Pamella Brown-Richardson, who works in a clinic associated with Montefiore. “Otherwise we were prohibited from wearing a surgical mask because management believed that doing so could alarm the patients.”
Montefiore did not return a request for comment.
Mary-Lynn Boyts, a registered nurse at Westchester Medical Center, said she treated a patient in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak with just a surgical mask and “a cloth yellow permeable gown and gloves, since he had not been identified as having COVID-19,” according to her affidavit.
“However, I later learned from coworkers that he had tested positive for COVID-19,” she wrote. “No one from hospital management notified me of this possible exposure.”
Once she learned she had been exposed, Boyts struggled to receive adequate preotective equipment and guidance from her hospital on best practices for protecting herself and her colleagues. She said she felt threatened by hospital leadership after speaking with the media about Westchester Medical Center’s inadequate preparations that endangered the health of hospital personnel and patients, according to the affidavit.
“I was, and still am, concerned that the hospital might discipline me for speaking to the media,” she wrote.
Westchester Medical Center denied the allegations in the suit.
“While we cannot comment on pending litigation, we know, and our care providers know, that the allegations in NYSNA’s lawsuit are wrong,” said company spokesperson Andrew LaGuardia. “Our focus is, and has always been, protecting our workforce, which has been aligned from the outset in treating the most severely ill patients battling Covid-19. NYSNA’s lawsuit is irresponsible and a distraction from this work, and a disservice to all who are valiantly caring for these patients every day.”