New Jersey’s largest nurses and healthcare workers union is calling on lawmakers to force hospitals and other facilities to keep track of and share information about how many health workers get sick the next time there’s a pandemic — or if there’s a second wave of COVID-19.

A Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union report — "Exposed and at Risk, New Jersey Health Care Workers Reveal how our Safety Systems Failed Them" — concludes when the COVID-19 crisis began in New Jersey in March, hospitals and other acute care facilities were almost completely unprepared for what would follow.

The report finds very little personal protective equipment was available, and nurses and other healthcare workers were exposed to the virus at alarming rates. Some got sick while others died.

Additionally many have suffered different degrees of post traumatic stress disorder because conditions became so stressful and horrific.

Nurse Alice Barden, an HPAE union leader in Bergen County, said many nurses were forced to work 12-hour shifts without drinking water because they could not remove their N95 masks. Many had to reuse personal protective equipment for weeks, even when it was designed to be used just once. Many were terrified they would expose their own family members and so many patients died of COVID-19 that in at least one hospital, nurses ran out of toe tags and had to make their own.

“We are caregivers but it felt like no one cared about us,” she said.

HPAE president Debbie White said as the pandemic overwhelmed the Garden State early on.

“In every facility, the rules were changing," she said. "Things were different every day and sometimes changed in the middle of the day."

She also noted PPE was rationed, safety measures were discarded and HPAE “was often alone in exposing shortcuts in equipment violations of safety standards and retaliation against those who stood up for safety.”

The report finds acute care facilities were not keeping track of critical data, including healthcare workers exposure to COVID-19, illness and death rates, and it recommends going forward this information must be provided to not only safeguard nurses and other healthcare workers, but also their patients if another wave of COVID-19 or some other health emergency strikes the Garden State.

White said the report finds 54% of union members reported being exposed to the novel coronavirus. One in five reported getting sick. It said 51 percent had to perform care on COVID-19 patients without proper PPE.

The report also found 57% were not tested, and 24% of those who became sick had to return to work.

The report strongly supports legislation sponsored by State Senator Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, S2384, that requires general acute care hospitals, special hospitals, ambulatory care facilities, ambulatory surgical centers, and nursing homes to report to the New Jersey Department of Health data on the number of health care professionals, ancillary health care workers, and emergency medical services personnel who test positive for COVID-19, die from COVID-19, and are admitted for treatment of COVID-19.

The state would be required to publish the data online and update it daily.

“We do shudder to think of future surges,” White said. "And we do want to be much more prepared, and we’re hoping that we learned the lessons. Preparations and planning must be a priority. If not we’ll repeat the same mistakes of the past few months.”

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