Social workers at a New York City hospital battling the coronavirus outbreak say the hospital dragged its feet at taking precautions to protect them from getting infected or from possibly spreading COVID-19 to patients.

Among the biggest complaints by social workers at NYU Langone Health in Manhattan was the insistence by management that they continue coming into work instead of having them do their jobs remotely.

The workers also complained about a lack of personal protective equipment, unsafe practices for clocking into shifts and lack of adequate work space to avoid coming into close contact with colleagues.

“Last week they wouldn’t let us wear masks and told us [the coronavirus] wasn’t spread on surfaces or clothes,” one of those social workers at NYU Langone told CNBC.

Only on March 20 did they allow social workers to wear surgical masks, which prevent the social workers from spreading any infection they might have but do not protect the wearer from catching the virus, as N95 masks are designed to do.

“They gave us one mask,” another social worker said. “One mask that protects the patients from what we could potentially expose them to.”

“These masks do not protect us,” the staffer said.

NYU Langone told CNBC that the hospital was taking steps to protect workers and patients.

But the hospital, in a statement, said that adopting new policies to protect staffers has been a “continuous process – we are learning everyday new and improved ways.”

In the meantime, coronavirus cases have increased dramatically at NYU Langone and other hospitals throughout New York City.

The Big Apple is the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, with more than 29,000 cases, or more than 25% of the national total of cases. Around 20% of city cases have required hospitalization. Most of the more than 500 deaths in New York state from the virus have occurred in New York City.

Shortages of personal protective gear has been an issue at New York City hospitals, with staffers at one of them, Mount Sinai West, using trash bags as garments because gowns had run out, according to a photo that has drawn widespread attention.

A 36-year-old assistant nursing manager Mount Sinai West, Kious Kelly, died of of COVID-19.

At a news conference Saturday morning outside Jacobi Hospital in The Bronx, nurses said that they needed more masks and other protective gear.

On Friday, Dr. Craig Smith, surgeon-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, in a letter to faculty and staff wrote, “The enemy is inside the wire,” referring to infections of employees at that hospital, a major medical center in the city.

“This became unavoidably obvious yesterday when another colleague was intubated,” Smith wrote. “Just one of an unsettling number of new ventilator cases at [the hospital], but proof for everyone of how real this is getting.”

“A widespread anxiety surge followed, with night-long text chains between the newly rattled,” he wrote. “What is the proper response? First, at the most practical level, accept that there is no place to hide. The virus has no opinion on class, race, socioeconomic status, or professional stature.”

Social workers at NYU Langone said that they started being concerned weeks ago about the spread of COVID-19 to staff, and the risk of infecting patients as a result.

“A lot of our patients are testing positive,” said the first NYU Langone social worker who spoke with CNBC.

“The patients that I’ve spoken to are terrified,” the worker said. “All of them have cried to me on the phone.”

That social worker also said that NYU Langone supervisors have resisted requests by employees to work from home and call patients on the phone, rather than interacting with them. 

“They still made us see patients in their rooms until this week,” the social worker said. “And now were are not allowed to see patients in their room.”

Yet, social workers are still being called into the hospital where they are sitting in an office very close to each other.

“They’re much closer” than the six-foot gap recommended to avoid spreading the virus, the worker said, adding that the hospital waited until last Monday to tell all hospital workers they should change into a fresh set of clothes after work.

A colleague, who also spoke to CNBC on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press, noted that supervisors are “allowing some workers that brought in” notes excusing them from work for medical reasons to work remotely.

“The rest of us are on the front line in a hospital filled of COVID-19 positive patients,” that second social worker complained.

“At this point, we are only speaking to the patients, families telephonically,” the second social worker said. “So it makes zero sense why they are asking us to walk into the building everyday.”

The second social worker balked at the hospital’s request for the team to continue to commute into work, which includes taking public transportation. “It’s unnecessary extra bodies that could only cause the spread of this virus,” the worker said.

In the statement to CNBC, when asked about the workers’ concerns, a spokeswoman for NYU Langone wrote, “For those employees who have been classified as ‘non-essential,’ they have been recommended to work from home.”

“Essential staff are asked to come to work and to wear protective gear, if they are in close patient contact,” the statement said.

“We are providing that protective equipment based on CDC guidelines.  In addition, implementing policies that protect our staff is a continuous process – we are learning everyday new and improved ways to protect our workers – and we will continue to do so until this crisis is over.”

The social workers’ concerns are being aired nearly two weeks after New York City began drastically restricting non-essential businesses and strongly urging people to keep a distance of six feet from one another.

While hospitals are considered essential because of the health care that doctors and nurses provide, their staffs include non-essential workers who do not necessarily need to be on site.

A woman who answered a phone at NYU’s fundraising office Friday said that she had been working remotely for the past two weeks.

But the first social worker who spoke to CNBC said even now, “A lot of non-essential employees come in and out” of the hospital, which is located on Manhattan’s East Side.

Therapists in art, horticulture and essential oils are still being forced to go into work, the social worker said. That’s in addition to pre-surgical screeners, whose job it is to call incoming patients to prepare them for surgery and do not need to personally see patients. 

“All these people are taking the subway everyday,” the worker said.

“It’s just bringing in more bodies and spreading” the virus potentially.”

When the staffer raised those concerns with a supervisor, “she just told me NYU was on top of it.”

That same supervisor told the worker that coronavirus could not be spread on hard surfaces, which is not true, the staffer noted.

The worker said “we use our fingerprints to clock in and clock out” on the hospital’s payroll timekeeping system.

That fingerprint surface is used by hundreds of employees. Workers were told to use Purell to clean their fingers afterward and discouraged from using a computer-based clock-in system.

“This week they changed the policy” of the fingerprint system, the worker said although staffers still have to use the same keypad to enter numbers to clock in and out.

“Everyone is still using the same touchpad,” the worker said.



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