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High hospitalization numbers are putting a strain on nurses

There are now more than 90,000 people hospitalized in the country with COVID-related illness, the highest number since the pandemic began. Hospital ICU's are nearly filled in some places, and the U.S. currently averages more than 1,500 deaths a day. Amna Nawaz spoke with Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United, to learn more about the strain this is putting on health workers.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    There are now more than 90,000 people hospitalized in the country with COVID-related illness, the highest number since the pandemic began. Hospital ICUs are nearly filled in some places.

    The U.S. currently averages more than 1,500 deaths a day, a number that could rise once reporting resumes after the holiday weekend.

    All of this is putting enormous strain on health care workers, including nurses.

    Here with more on that is Bonnie Castillo. She's the executive director of the National Nurses United group. That's the country's largest nurses union, representing 170,000 registered nurses.

    Bonnie Castillo, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    As we have seen, cases are surging across the country. When you look at the graphs, they are astounding. You see the number of new record daily high infections growing. You see, when you look at the map across the country, that no corner of the nation is untouched. The darker the shading on this map, the worse the surge is.

    So, Bonnie, when you look at your nurses on the front line of this, what do they not have right now that they need to do their jobs and to do them safely?

  • Bonnie Castillo:

    They still are lacking adequate protections.

    And when I say protections, I mean a comprehensive national plan of protections that include the PPE, personal protective equipment, adequate numbers of staffing, and even measures such as simple isolation, testing.

    We are going without. And we have been nine months into this and have had enough time to prepare. We know what we need, but we still don't have it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I think this will surprise a lot of people, that, all these many months later, after all the calls for additional PPE and that protective gear, nurses still don't have it.

    We put this question to the American Hospital Association, which represents about 5,000 hospitals and health care systems. They share your concerns. They say they have serious concerns about the availability of PPE.

    And they also said, in reference to the Trump administration's efforts, that they appreciate those efforts, but that the demand continues to outpace production.

    So, Bonnie, at this point, how do nurses get what they need? What could be done today or this week to get them to supplies they need?

  • Bonnie Castillo:

    Well, we need both the hospitals to be mandated to provide nurses adequate protections, because we actually know that we're still dealing with having PPE locked away from nurses, when they need it currently at the bedside.

    And so — but we also need a national plan. We need the — we have called for the Trump administration to fully invoke the Defense Production Act. And we need that now.

    Now, obviously, we are working with the — with president-elect Biden. And we hope that we will have that in place soon. As I said, we need it now, though. Literally, what we are seeing is unprecedented amounts of hospitalizations and deaths.

    And we're seeing that the employers clearly are not prepared for this. And they have had more than enough time to prepare.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bonnie, when you say that that stuff is locked away and not making its way to the nurses, what does that mean? I think people will have a hard time understanding.

    Are you saying it's there and just not getting to the front lines where it's needed?

  • Bonnie Castillo:

    So, for instance, what we have heard is reports of PPE coming in, and yet nurses are given one N95 mask for an entire shift.

    These masks are designed for single use only. And we still are having — hearing reports of hospitals expecting nurses not only to wear it for one whole shift, but oftentimes for multiple shifts, for weeks.

    This is going to result in infections, infections of the health care work force. And when we're infected, then we're not there to care for all these patients that are coming in.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bonnie, what about things like regular access to testing, contact tracing, early exposure of — or notification, rather, of any kind of exposure?

    We see professional athletes, college athletes, even, getting access to those kinds of things. Do nurses have easy access to those?

  • Bonnie Castillo:

    No, they don't.

    And when you think about it, we're coming into contact, direct contact, with the COVID patients. They — they need our expertise. And yet we are not given testing. So, we have had nurses who have been caring for patients since February, March, and who still have not been tested.

    This is one of our central demands is that, in order for us to be safe and to give — and for our patients to be safe, we need to know if we are infected. So, we — as I said, we're fighting state by state, but we really need a national plan. We need leadership that is going to take a national approach.

    You can't just have one state enact masking orders, staying in place, social distancing, and yet have other states completely flout that, and not have an impact from that on all of us. '

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We are so grateful for the work that all these front-line nurses and all the front-line health care workers are doing every day.

    That is Bonnie Castillo, the executive director of National Nurses United.

    Thanks for being with us.

  • Bonnie Castillo:

    Thank you.

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