Public employees have always been heroes. Now they are superheroes.
Like public sector workers everywhere, members of the New York State Public Employees Federation continue to provide vital services through the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped our nation, whether they’re doing the job at their worksites, working from home or even traveling house to house administering tests for the novel coronavirus.
Take just one example. PEF members at the New York Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center in Albany continue to play a critical role in testing for the virus.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo petitioned the federal government to approve New York’s test for the virus, COVID-19, the first non-Centers for Disease Control test approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Wadsworth staff, who are PEF members, developed that test. Wadsworth also analyzed the state’s first case, that of a 39-year-old Manhattan woman who had traveled to Iran.
Wadsworth is collaborating with hospitals throughout New York to expand “surge testing” capacity to 1,000 tests per day. Officials there are instructing these hospitals on how to replicate the state’s test, as well as helping them buy some of the equipment necessary to develop and validate the test. As of mid-March, Wadsworth’s testing capacity was up to as many as 200 tests per day.
Protective gear needed
Meanwhile, state nurses everywhere are in desperate need of personal protective equipment. Amy Lee Pacholk, a PEF member and nurse who works at Stony Brook University Hospital, is one of several nurses who raised the alarm early about the acute shortage of personal protective equipment like face masks and gloves.
“What we’re seeing right now is a rise in patients coming in with COVID-19, varying symptoms,” she told MSNBC. “Some are just coughing and being able to be put on the floors, some are intubated and being put in critical care areas. I work in a critical care area.”
“We, the practitioners, have a lot of fear and insecurity about this situation because our institutions and the government have not provided us with the appropriate equipment to properly protect ourselves to care for these patients,” Pacholk said. “So what will happen eventually, and what is starting to happen now, is that the healthcare professionals are getting sick—and we haven’t even seen the height of this pandemic.”
“Our nurses see a lot,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said during a virtual meeting with members March 19, describing how our union is working with AFT members across the nation who do similar work and are grappling with similar shortages. “I’ve never seen them as scared as I have in the past few days.”
Above and beyond
In addition to medical professionals, PEF members who administer the state’s workers’ compensation program and those who run the Department of Motor Vehicles are adapting to the closing of public facilities by offering virtual hearings or conducting business by appointment only. Members at the state education department keep school districts facing long closures informed about online resources and guidelines for remote learning.
Even PEF President Wayne Spence has put himself on the frontlines along with our members, volunteering to work a 12-hour day as he drove state health department employees from house to house in New Rochelle while they collected samples from and checked on residents under quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure. Spence, as a state parole officer, is qualified to volunteer as a driver, and he didn’t hesitate to drive to this hot zone of coronavirus cases. Besides driving, he assisted healthcare workers with proper containment and disposal of their gear.
“Many of our members are on the frontlines, facing this virus every day on the job,” Spence says. “When they were looking for volunteers, I was willing and qualified. I can’t ask our members to do something I’m not willing to do myself.”
Like the AFT’s page on all things coronavirus, PEF has created an extensive web page for members and their families, recognizing that the news changes constantly and no one truly knows when the outbreak will peak or subside, or how widespread it will be. Check these two sites before you venture onto the wild, wild web.
For up-to-the-minute news on how PEF members, from nurses to scientists, are helping stop COVID’s spread, be sure to follow PEF on Twitter.
[Annette Licitra/PEF photos]