In the COVID surge, California bypasses difficult nurse care laws

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Nerissa Black was also having a difficult time looking after four patients with COVID-19 who needed daily heart monitoring. But her workload recently increased to six individuals infected with the coronavirus because of staffing shortages impacting hospitals in California.

Black, a registered nurse in the cardiac telemetry unit at Valencia’s Henry Mayo Hospital, north of Los Angeles, has no time to take a rest or eat a meal. But what really scares her is that she doesn’t have enough time for her patients to speak to each of them.

Black says she rarely has time to help patients brush their teeth or go to the toilet because her aim is to ensure that they have the medicine they need and that they do not get bedsores.

“We had more patients fall (in December) than last year because we don’t have enough staff to take care of them all,” Black said.

In California’s most populous state, Black and many other nurses overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients are now looking after more patients than the law allows after the state started to enact waivers that allow hospitals to temporarily bypass the strict nurse-to-patient ratio – a move they say pushes them to the brink of burnout and hurts patient care.

California is the only state in the country to require a minimum number of nurses for patients in each hospital unit by statute. For instance, in the intensive care unit, hospitals must have one nurse for every two patients and one nurse for every four patients in the emergency room. Such ratios, nurses claim, have helped minimize mistakes and ensure the safety of patients and nurses.

Nurses, overloaded in other states with patients due to the pandemic, are seeking constitutionally required ratios. But they haven’t received them so far. Nurses have been seeking state-mandated minimum staffing levels in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York, the country’s first pandemic hotspot, for months.

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