As public officials and the community move to stop the community spread of COVID-19, health care workers are at great risk of getting infected – and becoming vectors for community spread of the deadly disease.
SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana Missouri & Kansas – which represents 90,000 workers in healthcare and child care in six hospitals, medical clinics and 25 nursing homes – is urging Gov. Mike Parson to do more to protect front-line healthcare workers.
"Some of our members do not have access to goggles, full-face shields, gowns, or nonsterile gloves," Caprice Nevils, a care partner at St. Louis University Hospital and an SEIU Healthcare Missouri Executive Board member, said at a press conference on Thursday, March 26.
"Those of us on the front lines need Gov. Parson to step up at this crucial moment and make sure we are equipped to deal with this deadly virus."
Nevils, colleagues and the union called on Parson to implement a statewide Stay at Home order, secure adequate personal protective equipment, mandate immediate access to paid leave for healthcare workers exposed to or infected with COVID-19, provide free testing and treatment, and child care and transportation assistance.
The demands were forwarded to Parson’s office. His response will be reported when and if received.
“This is our time of need,” said Ebony Smith, a certified nursing assistant from Truman Medical Center Lakewood in Kansas City. “We are on the front lines, but never noticed. Doctors and nurses get great priority. We are in harm’s way as well.”
Elinor Simmons, a home care worker in St. Louis, said they can not do their jobs from their homes – they work in other peoples’ homes – and social distancing at work is not an option for them.
“We have to clean our clients up, cook for them,” Simmons said. “We are everything to them – even companionship.”
Simmons expressed anguish that she has to put herself and her own loved ones in danger to do her job.
“I am very afraid to go out my door and take care of my clients, but there is a need,” Simmons said. “It is very scary. They give me gloves, but not a proper mask. I wash my hands, but it’s not enough. I don’t have what I need to take care of myself – and my brother lives with me.”
She called on Parson to mandate better workforce protections for front-line home and health care workers.
“I need to have resources to take care of my clients,” Simmons said. “We need your help to get what we need to protect ourselves. We need the right and proper equipment to take care of clients so we won’t receive this very deadly virus and take it home to our families.”
Front-line health and home care workers are vectors of infection to more people in the community than their own families. Simmons said that “some workers take this seriously, some do not,” and those who do not will contribute to the community spread of the virus if they are infected at work.
Lenny Jones, state director and vice president at SEIU Healthcare Missouri Kansas, said the union messages its members on self-protection and social responsibility. At the moment, he said, the union has no knowledge that any member has COVID-19.
“We have members who are ill and have requested testing who are unable to get tested,” Jones said. “There is a lot of fear.”
Jones said the union tells its members to stay home if they are sick, but statewide guarantees for paid time off for sick workers is needed beyond appeals to personal responsibility. He said this is a public health issue that demands a public response – and the governor is the state’s top public official.
“This is a challenge that needs to be posed to the governor, not just our members or their employers,” Jones said. “There are tens of thousands home care workers working at thousands of agencies. That’s a lot of contact, and they can be a vector. That’s why workers need clear protections to keep themselves, their clients and the community safe. That’s why we need leadership and action.”
Jones said the governor does not have any time to waste in issuing a statewide Stay at Home order and mandating better protections for the front-line workers who can’t stay at home.
“The governor needs to show leadership,” Jones said. “He needs to make demands of employers. We are demanding leadership to take this very seriously so we don’t see the catastrophe we are seeing in New York City. We have a moment – or we will have a catastrophe here.”