NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Hospital is not overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients but comparisons to a war zone are entirely justified, a health care workers’ union officer said.
But while Dave Hannon described “very, very severe” shortages of masks and other personal protection equipment (PPE), Nuvance Health media spokesperson Andrea Rynn said Norwalk Hospital and Nuvance Health has an “adequate” supply.
Rynn stressed that there’s no shortage of beds and said the thinking on ventilators has shifted, as there are “alternative pulmonary therapies that seem to be working well.” In the “absolutely terrible and unprecedented health emergency that we’re going through,” Nuvance employees have risen to the occasion with courage, devotion, fortitude and innovation.
Just yesterday, Nuvance was able to buy ventilators from a hospital in Kentucky, because a Danbury doctor knew someone there, she said Wednesday.
Rynn declined to provide statistics on how many COVID-19 patients are being treated in the hospital, saying the situation changes from moment to moment.
“I can say we are very busy but not overwhelmed,” she wrote. “One of the benefits of being a part of Nuvance Health system is that we have partner hospitals working together and sharing resources at any given moment. And, Dr. Murphy, our CEO, is one of three system leaders managing a statewide effort Where all hospitals are sharing resources, as local needs indicate. As such, our inventory changes by the minute.”
‘No one was prepared for this’
Hannon is Secretary/Treasurer for Connecticut Health Care Associates District 1199, the union for many Norwalk Hospital employees. He stressed that his information is second hand as he’s not in the hospital, he’s just getting reports from union members.
“I listen to my members when they’re crying after an 18-hour shift, and they didn’t have PPE and two of their patients died from this. That’s my function,” Hannon said Friday.
No, the hospital isn’t overwhelmed but, “I do think that our health care system is straining under this. But I think that they’re doing the best that they can, considering the circumstances.”
“Everybody is working hard, I think, to try and do the best they can right now,” Hannon said. “Especially, you know, on folks on the front line, who are very appreciative of donations of food and very appreciative of donations of PPE and rubber gloves and rubber, but, you know, the nitrile gloves and you know, I’ve heard people are donating thermometers and, and other things like that now as well.”
“I don’t think that anyone was prepared for this in any way at any level,” he said.
That includes the federal government.
“I think the state response was, was probably not as proactive at the beginning, but has become successively more proactive,” Hannon said. “And I think hospitals and health care facilities, we’ve been sounding the alarm about staffing levels and supply levels and all of that stuff for years. This is the result. I think when there’s a crisis…they can’t get the supplies in time because they only have enough on hand to deal with like the immediate needs, you know, and so if there is some emergency need, and in this case, it you know, pretty prolonged emergency need, I don’t think there’s their system is set up to handle that.”
The comparisons to war are accurate, he said. He saw something on social media that hit home: “Would you send a soldier into war without a helmet and a gun? And that’s what it’s like, being told to do this work without the equipment, that they need to do it. And much like, soldiers they are doing it because they have to and that’s what their job is, but also because they care for their patients and they don’t want to, they have to help.”
The PPE shortage is probably going to prolong the epidemic because “I think a bunch of our workers are going to start getting sick,” he said. “And that’s not any that’s not really their fault. It’s not really the fault of the employer either… there’s a supply chain problem with this stuff.”
NancyOnNorwalk asked Rynn about the shortage of N95 masks and other PPE.
“We have an adequate supply generally at Norwalk Hospital and across our Nuvance Health network,” she said.
Asked to define “adequate,” she said Nuvance has “a very robust, internationally recognized global health program,” and began discussing the new coronavirus in January and “efforts in earnest back in February to try and get ready for this.”
Nuvance looked at staffing, capacity and collaboration, and created space in Norwalk Hospital by sending children to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, adding beds for potential COVID-19 patients, Rynn said.
The 25-bed mobile field hospital that’s been deployed at Danbury Hospital is “ready to go in case we need it, but it has not been put in use yet,” she said. There are 250 as-yet unused beds in a FEMA hospital at Western Connecticut State University and Nuvance owns seven hospitals in New York and Connecticut, so “while Norwalk is very busy, Sharon Hospital may have extra capacity to take an overflow of patients, for instance.”
Although Rynn spoke optimistically about not running out of ventilators, the arrival of the Kentucky ventilators Wednesday brought one staff member to tears, according to a Facebook post.
When the Ridgefield mover arrived with the equipment, “Staff lined the driveway clapping and cheering,” Gloria Tenofsky wrote. “Dr. Murphy, CEO of Nuvance Health, came out to greet the truck. I sobbed watching this. Knowing how hard it is to get these supplies and that someone made the effort to drive their truck to KY for our community. These are trying times. There are people doing heroic work.”
Rynn said the alternative pulmonary therapy involves using a Cannula, a little tube under the nose, rather than a ventilator.
“That’s being done in other places around the U.S.,” she said.
‘We’re trying to wrap our arms around them’
NancyOnNorwalk has reached out to multiple Norwalk Hospital nurses, seeking a perspective for this story.
Although accounts of nurses telling horror stories are circulating, no nurses have agreed to talk toNancyOnNorwalk, even if their identity is protected.
“They’re busy,” Rynn said.
The staff’s efforts are “really extraordinary and they have stepped up in ways that are just fantastic, working long hours and being exposed to circumstances, you know, having to limit that the number of visitors and things like that,” Rynn said. “Nobody wants to work and serve patient needs that way, but they understand that some of these hard decisions have to be made for everybody.”
It’s an ethical shift from making decisions based strictly on the individual to considering the impact upon the whole community, Johns Hopkins reports. “They’re not able to provide the level of care they’re used to. The gap between what they can do and what they believe they should do creates moral distress, a sense that they’re compromising their integrity.”
“I’m also concerned about the long term mental health aspects of this and how that’s gonna weigh on people when this is over,” Hannon, the union officer, said Friday.
“That’s one of the things that we’re going to have to work with the state for, to expand workers compensation protections for healthcare workers that have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from this,” Hannon said. “…But all that all comes later. We’re kind of spit balling all this now but quite honestly, no one knows what the scope is the scope of this is going to be until it’s over.”
“You can imagine that folks are dealing with a great level of stress,” Rynn said.
Nuvance offers employees private confidential counseling, peer support, and spiritual care programs, and with this situation, senior hospital leadership and private donors have funded an employee support program to defray the cost of staying in a hotel, “instead of going home and potentially affecting their family or they just needed a quiet place.”
“We’re trying to wrap our arms around them in a number of ways, making sure they have the right equipment, the right supplies, the right leadership, the right emotional spiritual physical support that they need to get them through what is an unprecedented public health emergency,” Rynn said.
The employees are afraid of taking the virus home with them, Hannon said.
“Nuvance Health has tried to provide some childcare resources. …. they’re facilitating childcare services with outside agencies,” Hannon said. “I know that they’ve tried to get some hotel rooms at a cheaper cost for people to stay in in case they have immunocompromised loved ones at home, that they can’t go home. So I know that they are doing some things for their workers.”
“We have been very fortunate, we have a very small number of people who are out of work, ill with either COVID or suspected COVID or something like that,” Rynn said. “And you’re talking about somewhere around a dozen, but not a lot.”
“I have heard reports of some of our members being sick and recovering,” Hannon said. The union has been asking for this information but “there’s a lot of a lot of other things that the hospitals are trying to accomplish right now.”
“There is such compassion out there right now and generosity of heart and spirit,” Rynn said, describing donations of supplies and food deliveries every day.
On Wednesday, a “beautiful huge flag” went up, a “spectacular gesture that the staff appreciates so much,” she said.
“They themselves are a little bit isolated. They are working so hard and spending time away from their own loved ones as a result and so every gesture like that, every kind gesture means a lot.’
“There’s a lot of love from the community, toward nurses and other health care workers right now and you know, it’s well deserved,” Hannon said.
“I am incredibly proud of the staff at Norwalk hospital, and all Nuvance Health Hospitals, for their devotion, their ongoing commitment, the compassion that they are showing to patients and their families, often at the cost of seeing their own families, and the remarkable innovation that we’re finding from the employees,” Rynn said. “Even after weeks of this they are still fully focused on the people coming in the door and being hospitalized by us, who are successfully diagnosed and then discharged to home, to keep them safe and well.”