Op-ed: Professional athletes are getting coronavirus tests. Why aren’t healthcare workers?

August 19th, 2020

This op-ed by NUHW President Sal Rosselli ran in the Sacramento Bee on Sunday, August 16, 2020.

BY SAL ROSSELLI 

For the past five months, healthcare union leaders like me have been sounding the alarm about the appalling lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients.

But there’s one thing that’s far harder for caregivers to access than N95 masks — a coronavirus test for themselves.

There’s a common misconception, even among elected officials, that healthcare workers must be getting routinely tested for COVID-19, just like NBA players and other professional athletes. Not only are hardly any healthcare workers being routinely tested, their employers often refuse to test them even after they’ve been potentially exposed to someone with COVID-19 on the job.

Our members have frequently been denied tests by their employers and told to get tested through county health agencies, even though it can take a week to get the results, while the turnaround time for most hospitals is less than 24 hours.

Would you want to be cared for by a nurse or respiratory therapist, who’s been waiting a week to find out if they have contracted COVID-19?

It seems crazy, but we live in a nation where the NBA has determined it can’t safely play games unless its players are tested every day, yet billion-dollar healthcare chains won’t test their employees who are actually caring for COVID-19 patients.

Currently, California only requires regular COVID-19 testing for nursing home workers. All workers must be tested once a month in skilled nursing facilities with no infections and weekly in facilities where either patients or workers have recently tested positive for the virus.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers is calling on the California Department of Public Health to extend this policy to correctional facilities and issue a modified version for workers at hospitals and home health agencies. The proposal would require:

  • Routine testing of workers so that everyone is tested at least once per month.

  • Mandatory testing for workers who have been exposed to COVID-19 without adequate PPE.

  • Mandatory testing for all patients upon admission to a hospital to lower the risk of spread to caregivers and other patients.

According to state data, as of Aug. 8, healthcare workers comprised nearly 5% of Californians who have tested positive for COVID-19 — 26,676 people in total. That includes more than two dozen caregivers at a Kindred Hospital in Southern California, where a COVID-19 outbreak claimed the life of a nurse, as well as a lab technician at a Providence St. Joseph Health hospital in Northern California, who had to get herself admitted to her hospital’s emergency room in order to be tested for COVID-19, even though she was already showing symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control now estimates that 40% of people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic. Yet, at the behest of the healthcare industry, the agency has weakened its requirements for providing workers with appropriate PPE, such as N95 masks. Confronted with a highly transmissible disease and a lack of protective equipment, healthcare workers must be regularly tested to protect their patients, their coworkers and their families.

Caregivers can’t opt out of their jobs like professional athletes. They need employers like Providence, which has $12 billion in cash reserves and has received $500 million in stimulus funds, to keep them safe.

Ultimately, it’s a question of priorities. If we’re going to have enough healthcare workers to continue caring for patients during the coronavirus pandemic, we can’t let them be shut out of testing.

Sal Rosselli is president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents more than 15,000 healthcare workers in California and Hawaii.