BANGOR, Maine — The nation’s largest nurses union is calling on President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress to ensure hospitals across the nation are implementing the best possible protocols to protect health care workers, patients and the public from Ebola.
A small group of registered nurses, members of the Maine State Nurses Association under National Nurses United, gathered Tuesday morning in Pickering Square in downtown Bangor to urge people to sign on to a nationwide petition to mandate increased protective standards in health care facilities across the country.
“We are asking everyone to sign our petition demanding the president, the Congress and every hospital in the United States ensure that optimal protections are implemented immediately,” said Cokie Giles, Maine State Nurses Association president. “That is how we are going to contain Ebola and protect our patients.”
The demands included in the petition range from providing hospitals with full-body hazmat suits and respirators to training for hospital employees on how to properly deal with a patient who shows symptoms that might indicate an Ebola infection.
Giles wore a sticker that read “I am Nina Pham,” one of two Dallas nurses infected by the virus while treating a patient in their hospital.
“We are all Dallas nurses now,” she said.
Maine State Nurses Association represents about 2,000 Maine nurses. In all, about 7,000 registered nurses work in Maine hospitals, according to Vanessa Sylvester, labor representative for Maine State Nurses Association.
National Nurses United, which represents about 185,000 members across the nation, held similar news conferences Tuesday in cities across the nation, from Oakland, California, to Chicago. More are planned throughout the week.
The petition effort was sparked after an online survey conducted by National Nurses United found that of 3,000 nurses from 1,000 health care facilities representing every U.S. state, 84 percent believed their hospital had not provided adequate training on how to deal with an Ebola patient.
On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a list of tighter guidelines for U.S. health care workers. For example, hospitals should use hazmat suits that leave no skin exposed while treating Ebola patients.
Still, National Nurses United argues, these are guidelines and not requirements, leaving loopholes for health care facilities, according to a news release from National Nurses United Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro.
Ebola can spread when a healthy person comes into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Few people deal with bodily fluids as frequently as nurses, who are on the “front lines” in the fight to prevent Ebola from spreading in the United States, Giles said.
National Nurses United also has urged additional spending to send aid and equipment to fight the disease where it’s worst, West Africa, in hopes that it will prevent it from breaking out in other countries.
When asked whether the union was concerned about the fact that Maine has yet to replace a state epidemiologist who resigned in March, Giles said the union was more concerned that there is no U.S. Surgeon General to help lead the national conversation about the virus. The acting Surgeon General is Boris D. Lushniak. Maine also has yet to fill a deputy state epidemiologist position.
Ebola safety has edged its way into the National Nurses United’s contract bargaining demands in some parts of the country, with the union outlining a list of collective bargaining demands, ranging from continuous updated training to allowing a registered nurse to refuse to treat an Ebola patient if he or she believes the treatment conditions are unsafe, that could be pursued by its member unions.
“It’s clear that nurses are going to have to continue to fight every step of the way to demand that every patient, every nurse, every frontline health care worker has the protection they need,” DeMoro said. “Most hospitals continue to fall far short of that standard.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.