CHICAGO — On day one, it started as a headache before progressing to body aches, then came a sore throat, Candice Martinez recalled.
The month before contracting COVID-19, the housekeeping specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital picked up additional shifts, working 12-to 16-hour days to assist with the growing number of patients amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Martinez, who has worked at the hospital for the past three years, said she sanitized rooms after patients were discharged — some where coronavirus patients were treated.
Two weeks ago, she tested positive for COVID-19.
Now, quarantined in her home, Martinez, who has asthma, has yet to recover from the illness. She believes she contracted the virus while working on the hospital floor. Although she takes pride in her job, she said not enough was being done to protect her and other workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
Martinez is among a number of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members calling for more protections.
Greg Kelley, regional president of SEIU, said hospitals must step up protections and offer hazard pay, access to personal protective equipment and testing for all hospital employees.
“Hospital service workers who provide direct hands-on care, who clean and sanitize rooms, who work to cook and deliver meals, transport patients and do other essential work to provide quality care are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis risking their very lives for the greater good,” Kelley said.
The SEIU, which represents health care workers in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, has received numerous reports of inadequate protections and insufficient pay for hospital staffers, Kelley said.
“In many cases, workers report not being regularly updated on current policies and protocols, and either not having enough of the supplies and personal protective equipment required under CDC guidelines, or sometimes [not] even knowing where the supplies are or even how to use them,” he added.
In a statement, Northwestern Memorial Hospital said the health and safety of employees, physicians and patients was its “highest priority.”
“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain an environment that protects everyone,” said hospital spokesman Christopher King.
“We continue to follow the recommendations of the CDC for personal protection equipment and have been fortunate to date to secure sufficient personal protective equipment to do so,“ he said.
King said the hospital updates protocols daily for caring for COVID-19 patients.
“We provide multiple channels for communication including a dedicated hot line so that our staff can ask questions and receive support,” King said.
Asked about hazard pay, King’s statement said they were in “regular contact with representatives of the SEIU and always open to discuss any issue or concern they may have regarding the safety of our workforce.”
‘When fighting any war, you make sure you have enough ammo’
But Martinez said workers are not being given up-to-date information that would best protect themselves. She said signs warning employees that a COVID-19 patient had been in a room were removed before janitorial staff even arrived — so they didn’t even know to take extra precautions while cleaning.
The hospital often cites HIPPA for such removals, she said.
Wellington Thomas, a lead emergency room tech at Loretto Hospital, echoed Martinez’s concerns.
“After COVID, our world turned upside down,” Thomas said. “We are dealing with an influx of patients at times, equipment that we are already struggling with are now really scarce. Employees are afraid to come to work. People feel that equipment that we need to protect us isn’t either available or it’s not easily accessible.”
Thomas said hospital workers deserved to have appropriate equipment along with effective communications to safely to their jobs.
“When fighting any war, you make sure you have enough ammo. Why not make sure that you have enough equipment and people here that we can do our job?”
But even more, hospitals should be giving hospital workers hazard pay during such critical times, he said.
If grocery store workers were receiving hazard pay, so should hospital workers making sure hospitals continue to function, Thomas said.
Loretto Hospital did not respond to request for comment.
Across the country, hospitals have reported a shortage of various supplies including N95 face masks, gloves and gowns.
Ann Igoe, Vice President of the Health Systems Division for SEIU, said hospitals needed to start taking staff temperatures before they enter hospitals and have COVID testing readily available for all workers.
“Right now, there’s employees who have been exposed but are being denied tests unless they show symptoms. And some of those employees are even told to continue coming to work unless they show symptoms,” she added.
‘Nobody chose this field to lose their life’
Kimberly Smith, a patient care tech at Northwestern, said members were reaching out hourly about being exposed to COVID but are still being asked to come in to work by management.
“You’re setting people up for failure,” Smith said. “There was a point when I said it was a safe haven but now it’s turning into a deathtrap… People are afraid to come to work. They don’t feel safe.”
Despite raising these concerns, Smith said hospital workers were not being taken seriously.
“Nobody chose this field to lose their life. We chose this field because we wanted to help improve and preserve life,” Smith said.
In reflecting on her diagnosis, Martinez said she still didn’t feel “the greatest” but was thankful her case hasn’t turned “critical.”
Even so, Martinez said she wakes up every morning realizing her symptoms haven’t subsided and “I’m still sick… wondering if it’s going to get worse or not.”
“It’s scary because I’m not sure how this is supposed to play out,” Martinez said.
“It’s hard because I’ve been in complete isolation. I don’t get to see my son…. There’s nothing right now that [doctors] can give me,” she said. “I pretty much having to battle this out on my own….
“It’s not a great feeling to have to be by yourself and not know If the outcome is gonna be positive or not,” she said.
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