© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science, Environment

Nurses Union Says Ebola Prep Inadequate in St. Louis

(National Institutes of Health)

As concerns over Ebola grow around the country, unionized nurses in St. Louis are asking for full-body hazmat suits with respirators and for additional training. They are also requesting that the treatment of patients diagnosed with the virus be voluntary--an extremely unusual request.

Seven members of National Nurses United [NNU] spoke with reporters outside Saint Louis University Hospital on Monday. NNU published their demands with a petition after two Dallas nurses contracted Ebola while caring for Thomas Eric Duncan, the first patient diagnosed in the U.S.

“I can’t help but feel afraid about the virus.  I think that we don’t know enough about it, and we’re not properly ready for it -- to take care of patients or to protect ourselves,” emergency department nurse Yolanda Jackson said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued more stringent guidelines for hospitals preparing for potential patients with Ebola, but NNU says they do not go far enough.

When caring for a patient, nurses may be at the highest risk because they have the most interactions with patients and are often responsible for cleanup. Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood and vomit, and only when a patient is displaying symptoms, making a rapid spread of the virus in the U.S. unlikely.

Saint Louis University Hospital spokesperson Jason Merrill said the hospital is adjusting its procedures according to the new recommendations. He said 86 nurses on staff and in the Emergency Department have received initial training and that preparations are ongoing. Signs have been posted in intake areas asking patients to self-report any travel to West Africa in the past 21 days.

At least some staff have been trained in how to don full-body protective gear, a lengthy process that involves three people, Jackson said.

Jackson added learning to treat new viruses can be a “rollercoaster.” She likened the experience to early responses to AIDS/HIV and hepatitis.

“There’s so many ways we can take care of it. But we need, as healthcare professionals, to be fully informed, and to have a standardized way of how to take care of our patients and ourselves.”

Saint Louis University Hospital nurse and union member Jay Coomer said the union has submitted ita demands to the hospital’s Chief Nursing Officer.

“We have asked that the care of Ebola be strictly voluntary, and that a nurse not be punished for disciplined for refusing to care for an Ebola patient. Also if a nurse contracts Ebola or has symptoms, that he or she be given free medical care, and be put on administrative leave,” Coomer said.

Coomer said it’s highly unusual for a nurse to refuse to care for a person who presents a specific infectious disease.

“You would be considered abandoning your patient if you refused to care for someone,” Coomer said. 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.