In almost a reverse interpretation of the famous saying of the Greek physician Hippocrates, “First, do no harm,” medical staff across the nation say that despite testing positive for COVID-19 and having symptoms, they were told by their employers to return to work. This glaring disparity ignores the warning from public health officials for all workers to stay home if they are sick.
According to Kaiser Health News, medical facilities have repeatedly flouted this rule, pressuring COVID-19-infected workers to return to their jobs sooner than it’s deemed safe for them, their colleagues and their patients.
A survey of nearly 1,200 members of the Health Professional and Allied Employees Union revealed that approximately one-third had to return to work while they still had symptoms of the disease.
These healthcare workers had to make choices between their paychecks and their health, and recent reports show that over 900 of them died of COVID-19, according to The Guardian. Dire shortages of protective equipment, understaffing and an overburdened healthcare system were cited as reasons medical care workers are dying, with early tallies showing that the majority of them were nurses and people of color.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration received several complaints regarding treatment of medical personnel during the COVID-19 crisis. Employees claimed they were forced to work despite showing symptoms of the disease and were often told they would be fired if they stayed home.
According to KHN, federal officials admit that staffing shortages may require sick workers to return to their jobs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of strategies to mitigate staffing shortages that includes canceling all nonessential procedures and enlisting retired healthcare professionals if needed. “As a last resort,” the website says, healthcare workers confirmed to have COVID-19 may provide care to patients who do not have the virus.
“What we learned from this pandemic was that employees felt disposable,” Debbie White, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union, told KHN. “Employers didn’t protect them, and they felt like a commodity.”
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