Nurses from the largest trade union in the United States have warned of serious strains on the healthcare system as the country sees a new surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

In a press conference on Monday, members of National Nurses United, which represents 170,000 registered nurses in the U.S., reported harrowing reports of understaffed hospitals, shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and an inadequate response from local and federal authorities.

On Saturday, the US exceeded 12 million confirmed coronavirus cases. More than 247,000 people have died in the country after contracting COVID-19, according to a record by Johns Hopkins University.

Despite a mid-year slack in hospital stays, the number of patients currently being hospitalized has more than doubled as the US enters the colder months. As of Friday, more than 83,000 patients in the United States had been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Officials in some areas have warned hospitals could experience worse stress than the first major outbreak earlier in the year. Health and human services data released last week showed that 18 percent of hospitals in all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico, report a “critical” staff shortage. North Dakota is hardest hit. 51 percent of hospitals report bottlenecks. Seven other states are above the 30 percent mark.

“Almost a year after this pandemic, our hospitals are still unprepared,” said Jean Ross, union president and nurse in Minnesota. She said a survey of nurses conducted by the organization found that 80 percent of hospitals in the United States had not done adequate planning for an increase in cases.

“Our government and healthcare employers have not implemented what is needed since the pandemic started,” she said. “We are still fighting for safe personnel and optimal PPE” as well as for appropriate measures for “infection control”.

“We need PPE”

Marissa Lee, a birth and childbirth nurse in Kissimmee, Fla., Said most nurses at the hospital she works at, Osceola Regional Medical Center, only receive optimal PPE that “takes precautions in the air and at.” Droplets ”when working directly with patients who are known to be infected with COVID-19. Otherwise they will receive fewer surgical protective masks.

“We need PPE … PPE is the key word in everything we talk about here,” said Lee. He added that staff levels have become “insecure” and staff are regularly being transferred to departments outside of their expertise. The hospital administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Many people have ignored the warnings from the health authorities and travel for Thanksgiving [Matt Slocum/AP Photo]Consuelo Vargas, a Chicago, Illinois emergency room nurse who has had record cases every day for the month, described the shortage of PPE at Cook County’s John H. Stroger Jr. Public Hospital. She also described a staff shortage amid an influx of patients forced to use the emergency room for primary care after losing their employer-provided insurance during the pandemic.

She added the hospital did not properly separate infected people from the population.

“Last week I got to a point where I was deaf. I didn’t feel tired. I didn’t feel happy. I wasn’t angry, ”she said. “I wasn’t frustrated and I wasn’t sad. I literally felt nothing. And that’s a scary place for nurses. “

Vargas called for more transparency from both hospital administrations and the government, and urged Americans to take precautions to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Cook County Health spokeswoman Deborah Song said in a statement to Al Jazeera that management has “prioritized the health and safety of our employees and our patients,” including the work to “ensure adequate and optimal personal protective equipment for personnel train and draw up surge plans, including staff at all levels. “

However, she admitted that staffing hospitals had been a “nationwide challenge” with voltage spikes in different areas at different times.

“We don’t have the resources to pay the exorbitant prices or premiums other hospitals can afford or to contract with agencies to have staff wait to be needed,” she said. “Should the staff be challenged beyond what we can afford, we will likely face further reductions in services in order to move staff to areas in need. This is the unfortunate reality of this pandemic. “

“We need change”

Both nurses and hospital administrators have stressed the need for further precautionary measures to reduce patient numbers and relieve the health system.

U.S. health officials have warned against traveling and gathering for the upcoming Thursday Thanksgiving Day, but millions of Americans have ignored that call. The Transportation Security Administration said more than three million people were screened at airports on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the highest traffic since March.

“I know the holiday season is just around the corner. Ready to give up a vacation season for 10 more? Said Vargas. “Do you think of everything you want to achieve in your life, the places you want to go, the things you want to do, the people you want to hang out with? Are you ready to give up on all of this? “

Health care workers process queues at a COVID-19 testing site at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston [David J Phillip/AP Photo]Christina Hanson, a nurse in Marquette, Michigan, a state that also saw record numbers that month, urged state officials across the country, many of whom opposed the imposition of restrictions or mandates on masks in public, “us to meet where we are “.

She thanked Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for imposing restrictions to contain the virus while poking fun at President Donald Trump, whose administration has been wary of statewide or national mandates.

“We are concerned and concerned that we will become infected with this virus and pass it on to our loved ones,” Hanson said. “Nurses are tough, but strong and dedicated like our nurses. What we do is not sustainable. We see the falls climb across the country and we look forward to what is to come. We need change. “

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