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Opinion: UCLA Health has failed to care for nurses, employees during pandemic

UCLA Health administrators need to start holding themselves to higher standards by giving the nurses working on the front lines in their facilities the support they need. (Finn Chitwood/Daily Bruin)

By Rachel Durose

Dec. 11, 2020 9:31 p.m.

“As a Bruin, I commit myself to the highest ethical standards.”

During this pandemic, many Bruins, especially health care workers, have upheld their “True Bruin Values.”

UCLA Health administrators have not.

On Nov. 10 and Nov. 23, UCLA Health nurses demonstrated in front of a Santa Monica COVID-19 testing site and Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center to protest their unsafe working conditions. UCLA nurses said that for over a year, they have experienced staffing shortages, as well as a lack of testing and contact tracing.

While the California Department of Public Health will require acute-care hospitals to provide weekly COVID-19 testing for their employees starting Dec. 14, this only addresses one aspect of the overwhelming challenges UCLA nurses face as holiday season spikes in cases continue to roll in. At the Nov. 23 vigil, UCLA nurses said many nurses are forced to work 16-hour shifts while charge nurses often take on two to four patients per night in addition to their administrative duties as a result of limited staffing.

If the “highest ethical standard” UCLA Health holds itself to is ignoring its employees’ life-or-death demands until they become law, then UCLA may want to reconsider boasting to their students about the health care they can receive at its facilities.

Kevin Riley, the director of research and evaluation at the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program, said that while he is unfamiliar with UCLA Health’s labor conditions, the Aerosol Transmissible Diseases standard implemented in 2009 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health should legally provide some of the nurses’ requests.

“Employers are supposed to have plans in place for what is called surge events,” Riley said. “When a pandemic like this hits and suddenly a facility is inundated with patients needing care, there needs to be good plans and procedures in place … that do it in a way that’s protecting the health and safety of their workers.”

The ATD standard required that health care facilities such as those belonging to UCLA provide respiratory protection such as N-95 masks to their employees. It also states that employers must conduct contact tracing.

Riley said while Cal/OSHA was slow at the start of the pandemic to investigate ATD violations, they have now found health care providers liable for breaking these laws.

Unfortunately, UCLA Health has not been held properly accountable.

UCLA students are encouraged to strive for greatness, and the administrators at a hospital that bears the university’s name should be encouraged to do so as well – especially when the standards currently in practice are this unethical.

In a Nov. 20 press release, National Nurses United, the largest union for registered nurses, said UCLA Health has indefinitely halted hiring during the pandemic, leaving many positions vacant. Additionally, UCLA nurses said they have to conduct their own contact-tracing through word of mouth and unofficial channels.

Such a practice certainly shouldn’t be allowed as COVID-19 cases surge across the country. It’s a mystery as to why UCLA Health can get away with jeopardizing their nurses’ health day in and day out. Front line workers deserve the utmost protection from their employer, especially when their employer is one of the nation’s highest-ranked hospital systems.

During a deadly pandemic, UCLA’s priority should be ensuring health care workers are protected and hospitals are well-staffed – otherwise sentiments of appreciation and caution to students are empty words and requests.

Kendal McCarthy, a third-year psychobiology student, said she was unaware of the UCLA Health labor conditions or of the nurses’ demonstrations.

“(The nurses’ demands) are super important especially because they’re in contact with people who do have COVID,” McCarthy said. “Having that kind of peace of mind and being able to go into work and feel safe (is important).”

However, UCLA Health believes they have met and in some cases “exceeded” standards.

In an emailed statement, UCLA Health said their top priority was patients’ and employees’ well-being and that self-reported COVID-19 symptom surveys are used daily. They said that UCLA Health in many cases exceeds state-mandated nursing ratios.

Exceeding lackluster mandates does not mean excellence, and when it comes to our nurses’ safety, excellence is what is required.

UCLA Health is developing asymptomatic COVID-19 monitoring only now that new regulations are set to be implemented on Dec. 14. It’s been nearly nine months since the start of the pandemic. It should have been meeting its staff’s demands long ago.

Or even better, the staff should have never had to make these demands if their well-being was priority number one.

No public health facility can in good faith wait for the California Department of Public Health to issue recommendations to give those risking their lives basic protections.

Our health care workers and nurses are risking their lives to care for our most sick. If UCLA Health can’t respect or care for them, perhaps it shouldn’t be the state’s No. 1 hospital system.

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Rachel Durose
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