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Now it’s monkeypox putting healthcare workers at risk

NewsJuly 28, 2022

They need training, tools, and support to protect patients, themselves, and communities from the virus

by Sal Rosselli

As a leader of a healthcare union in San Francisco in the 1980s when the AIDS virus was on the rise, it was part of my job to sound the alarm and call for a stronger response from government. Fast forward to 2022 and another virus is spreading. This time it is not AIDS but monkeypox, and once again I’m sounding the alarm because neither our government nor our healthcare system are prepared.

Monkeypox, a highly communicable cousin to smallpox, was first identified more than 50 years ago, according to the World Health Organization. On Saturday the WHO declared the monkeypox outbreak a “global emergency” with cases reported in 74 countries.

Since the first case in this country was reported in May, the outbreak has spread to nearly every state, with nearly 3,000 cases confirmed as of July 25. California ranks second only to New York with 356 cases. The number of those infected has been increasing tenfold each week this month. When the virus starts hitting the school population it will be very hard to control. Managing the virus once it has spread that far also will carry with it a high economic cost.

Here in California we just had our first infection of a child — a toddler. That case and others prove that the pathogen can affect anyone who has close contact with people who have monkeypox. This includes the healthcare workers who care for those who get infected.

We should be better prepared to address this public health crisis. The Jynneos vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the prevention of smallpox and monkeypox in 2019 for people 18 and older. But doses are in short supply, both for the people most at risk such as the LGBTQ community and for the frontline healthcare workers who will be called on to provide treatment.

We don’t produce the vaccine in the United States and federal health officials ordered very few doses rather than the millions needed, hampering the effort to protect healthcare workers, to contain the outbreak, and to prevent its spread within and beyond the LGBTQ community. Lines have been long for those seeking the Jynneos vaccine and clinics have been forced to close due to short supply in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Unlike the AIDS crisis of 40 years ago during which the virus was transmitted primarily through sexual contact, the sharing of needles, or blood transfusions, this virus can be transmitted through surfaces such as sheets and towels, as well as prolonged respiratory spread.

Healthcare workers need training on how to care for patients with monkeypox. Training is critical not just for doctors and nurses, but those who clean hospital rooms, handle laundry, anyone and everyone in a hospital setting who may directly or indirectly have contact with a patient.

Hospital workers need priority access to federally-provided vaccines and testing.

They need guaranteed paid time off to quarantine if they get infected.

And they need the support of a government-funded education campaign to help slow the spread of the virus and keep surges of patients from overwhelming hospitals and clinics.

My union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, represents more than 16,000 California caregivers who have devoted their lives and careers to caring for their patients and who bravely put their own safety on the line every day. Right now, we are being asked to fight a virus outbreak without necessary safeguards and support.

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic the healthcare industry publicly lauded its healthcare workers as heroes. This was empty rhetoric. They didn’t treat their people as heroes deserve to be treated.

A majority of health providers during the Covid crisis were slow to provide training. They failed to provide adequate PPE and testing, hazard pay for workers, and sufficient paid time-off for those forced to quarantine. Some hospital workers had to provide their own masks and pay for Covid tests because hospitals, including many operated by the largest and richest corporate hospital chains, failed to do so.

The bottom line: the healthcare industry cares most of all about the bottom line. This model of healthcare does not prioritize prevention or preparedness; its top priority is making money. As a result, we are no better prepared for monkeypox than we were for Covid.

Let’s get a handle on monkeypox now. Keep the pressure on both government and the healthcare industry to provide healthcare workers what they need — the training, the tools, and the support necessary to protect their patients, themselves, and their communities.

Sal Rosselli is the President of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).