Survey: As COVID-19 Numbers Soar, Some Nurses Don’t Have Adequate Protections

Hospitals and health systems must do more to be fully compliant with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) emergency temporary standard (ETS) to protect nurses and other healthcare workers from COVID-19, says the latest survey of 5,000 RNs conducted by National Nurses United (NNU).

The ETS, which includes requirements on personal protective equipment (PPE), patient and visitor screening, and employee notification within 24 hours of the employer becoming aware of exposure, is the first-of-its-kind enforceable federal COVID-19 standard that went into effect July 21.

However, nurses still face problems with access to testing, being notified in a timely manner when they are exposed, inadequate respiratory protection, unsafe staffing, mental health, and workplace violence, the survey reveals.

Compared to results from the last survey in March 2021, RNs also reported inadequate COVID screening and testing rates for patients who enter or are admitted to a healthcare facility and a decrease in dedicated COVID units.

“We are more than 18 months into the pandemic, yet hospitals are still not doing enough to ensure the safety of nurses, patients, and other healthcare workers,” NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo, RN, said.

“COVID cases are surging to their highest levels yet in some areas of the country, and some ICUs are over capacity,” Castillo said. “Nurses need optimal personal protective equipment. Healthcare employers must notify nurses as soon as possible when they are exposed and make it easier for RNs and other healthcare workers to get tested.”

Highlights from the survey include:

More than 75% of hospital nurses are not timely notified of COVID exposure. About 23% of hospital RNs reported timely notification of exposure by their employers, down from 31.6 percent reported in March 2021.

Access to testing is an issue at some hospitals. About 41% of RNs at hospitals reported that any staff who asks for testing has access; nearly 20% said access to testing is limited at their facility; and 7% said testing is not available where they work. Of nurses who answered additional questions on employer testing, 58% said only staff who are symptomatic can get tested, “a troubling statistic as scientific research has found that about half of all COVID transmissions are from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals who were infected,” NNU said.

Not all patients and visitors are screened for COVID. Two-thirds of hospital RNs report that all patients are screened for COVID-19 symptoms before or upon arrival at the facility. Regarding visitors, 53% of the RNs reported that every visitor is screened for COVID-19 and symptoms before or upon arrival.

Hospital nurses are still not provided optimal PPE when caring for COVID-positive patients or those suspected of having COVID. Nearly 61% percent of hospital RNs reported wearing a respirator for every COVID-positive patient encounter, down from nearly 75% in the March 2021 survey. About 40% reported that respirators are worn when caring for patients suspected of having COVID or whose tests results are not completed while about 62% reported using surgical masks for those patients.

COVID-19 continues to have a deep impact on the mental health of hospital nurses. Nearly 42% fear they will contract Covid; 53.5% feel stressed more often than before the pandemic; and more than one-third feel traumatized by their experiences caring for patients.

Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.