It’s been nearly two months since Thomas Eric Duncan became the first patient to be diagnosed with the Ebola virus in the United States in this latest outbreak. In that time, Duncan sadly succumbed to the disease, two nurses who treated him were diagnosed, and untold thousands more have suffered and died in West Africa.
While many throughout the world have watched and fretted from the sidelines, our members have joined courageous health professionals around the world, like Dr. Craig Spencer and nurse Kaci Hickox, to fight on the frontlines against this vicious disease. Speaking of Dr. Spencer, Hickox and those nurses in Dallas who ministered to Duncan, we need to honor these heroes and others who have volunteered in West Africa and the United States to care for Ebola patients.
The AFT will continue to stand with nurses and health professionals across the country to ensure that our response to the Ebola virus is based on science, not politics. That means that when those courageous men and women return from West Africa, they are greeted with respect instead of stigma.
From a nurse in Brooklyn, N.Y., who traveled to Sierra Leone to help treat stricken patients, to our healthcare leaders in Washington state who have worked with state officials and hospital management to put in place the right training and equipment, we have been taking action to keep communities and health professionals safe and healthy.
The best way to do this is through the three-part strategy that we launched in October:
- Infection-control protocols and worker-preparedness plans at all health facilities;
- Dedicated, specially trained teams of willing staff—including doctors, nurses, lab and X-ray technicians, and housekeeping staff—to care for Ebola patients, and there must be adequate staffing levels; and
- Inclusion of frontline providers in the development and implementation of plans.
In recent months, we have made great progress on this front. In facilities across the country, management and federal, state or local officials are working with us to ensure that nurses and health professionals feel prepared, are trained and have a voice in their facilities’ preparedness plans.
The Oregon Nurses Association has been working to encourage an open dialogue between nurses and healthcare facilities, while the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals has been working closely with Kaiser Permanente to ensure best practices are implemented to keep frontline workers and patients safe. In New York, the United Federation of Teachers has been working to prevent the stigmatization of people from West African countries. At the University of Connecticut Health Center, I visited a room readied for Ebola patient isolation and treatment and saw firsthand how our members are working hard to be prepared.
However, in other communities, there is still much work to be done.
Nurses and health professionals know what they need to keep themselves, their patients and their communities safe. We will be reaching out to governors in states where more progress is needed to work together to provide adequate training and resources.
We will continue working at the federal level with the White House and with agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to ensure standards are developed to protect workers from exposure to Ebola and provide adequate training, while also working toward proper enforcement, particularly in places where nurses and health professionals don’t have a union. We also have set up a hotline (202-393-6300) for nurses and health professionals to alert us to problems and potential violations at their facilities.
And because communicating the real facts to the public is so important, the AFT will continue to put updated resources on AFT.org to share what we know about the Ebola outbreak with health professionals and communities. There also are materials on how to keep our children safe at school.
While we work to contain the Ebola threat here in the United States, West Africa’s Ebola outbreak is one of the deadliest challenges of modern times. We must remain vigilant in supporting efforts to solve this crisis globally.
The AFT has directed funds from our disaster relief fund to support Public Services International in long-term public health infrastructure, and Partners in Health and Doctors Without Borders with their patient care and efforts at infrastructure building in West Africa.
For those placed in quarantine, we will fight to ensure that they receive the privacy, compensation and support they deserve.
At the same time, we must continue our efforts on the policy level. Our nation’s public health infrastructure is frayed after years of nothing but cuts.
Policymakers must make a national commitment to rebuild our public health infrastructure—which is responsible for ensuring that the public has the right information, and that healthcare providers know how to confront and contain an outbreak of disease. Without an adequate infrastructure as our foundation, we can’t begin to ensure that every provider and facility can respond to any healthcare emergency.
Our nation boasts one of the most advanced healthcare systems in the world. We have the capacity and know-how to address this public health issue. If we listen to the voices of our nurses and health professionals, we can keep our communities safe and healthy.