Front-line flashpoints appear in New York’s battle against COVID-19

A new wave of labor strife could complicate the state response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nurses at NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi  in May 2020.

Nurses at NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi in May 2020. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The latest state data shows how the coronavirus pandemic is continuing to surge across New York. Daily deaths are at their highest levels since mid-June; all 62 counties are reporting new confirmed cases; and hospitalizations have risen to levels not seen since late May, though they still remain far below the apex reached in early April. 

Increasing caseloads are also reviving fears that the state health care system could reach its breaking point in the weeks ahead. “My projection is that the numbers will continue to go up through the Christmas season,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters during a conference call this morning. A repeat of the “apocalyptic” surges at facilities like Elmhurst Hospital in Queens last spring is just what the state is looking to avoid this winter. “You could have hospitalizations overwhelming the system like we saw in Elmhurst if we are not careful,” Cuomo added during the call.

But a fresh round of conflict between workers in the health care industry and their employers is complicating efforts to prepare for the surge of COVID-19 cases sweeping across the state. Nurses are striking in Albany and New Rochelle over personal protective equipment and labor contracts, and immigrant workers say they remain at increased risk of contracting the coronavirus as they launder sheets and towels for patients. Other health care workers are increasingly voicing their concerns in upstate and downstate hotspots alike.

A perfect storm of workplace issues could make it harder for COVID-19 patients to get the best treatment possible in the months ahead, health care workers warn. “When we’re short-staffed, we are rushed,” a Utica nurse recently said of ongoing concerns at a Mohawk Valley facility. “We become torn between what will be left undone, and we hope no harm will come to our patients because of that which we could not do.” While the health care system as a whole is not seeing widespread strife, the ongoing disputes in some regions highlight the types of issues that could become flashpoints as more facilities feel the strain from mounting caseloads across the state. 

Several patients have been transferred out of Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital after the New York State Nurses Association announced plans to strike following outrage over the hospital preparing contingency plans before first working out a new labor agreement with nurses. “All hell is breaking loose at the hospital,” a local union leader said in a statement before the two-day strike began today. Marcos Crespo, a senior vice president of community affairs for Montefiore Medicine and past chair of the state Assembly Labor Committee, accused the union of “selfishly” putting its interests above patient care, Gannett News reports.

State efforts to boost hospital capacity, stockpile PPE and recruit reserve hospital staff underscore that New York is better prepared for the current surge of COVID-19 cases than it was 10 months ago when the first confirmed cases began popping up. Yet, health care workers say more needs to be done. PPE and staffing issues are still unresolved. Workers’ compensation and death benefits remain outstanding. Some workers point out that months after the nightly rounds of public clapping ended for front-line workers, their work is going increasingly unappreciated. “In this age of COVID, you want to feel secure if you’re a health care worker, that you’re going to be taken care of,” one union leader told The New Republic. “Instead, we got to live in stress worrying that (our) health care might get worse.”