News & Events

Nurses union reaches deal on H1N1 safety in U.S.

Mon Nov 2, 2009 8:27pm EST

By Steve Gorman


LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – After months of talks, the largest U.S. nurses union and California’s biggest nonprofit healthcare chain have agreed to safeguards that the nurses believe may serve as a national model for curbing H1N1 swine flu in hospitals.

The H1N1 pact, announced on Monday as part of a contract settlement between the California Nurses Association and Catholic Healthcare West, averted a one-day strike threatened by thousands of registered nurses at more than 30 hospitals.

Already one of the most powerful political forces in California, the CNA is working to merge soon with the United American Nurses and the Massachusetts Nurses Association, a move that would create a combined union of 150,000 nurses.

The accord addresses complaints by nurses in California and elsewhere that many hospitals are ill-prepared for a surge in H1N1 cases. Among other problems, they cite shortages of special face masks recommended for medical personnel and a lack of patient-isolation rooms to contain flu transmission.

Nurses’ advocates say cost-saving measures have led some hospitals to cut corners on purchasing safety equipment and some to fall behind in training and planning. Some nurses have accused hospital administrators of improperly rationing face masks to conserve limited supplies.

Worries about equipping nurses with gear to protect them from infection — and from spreading the H1N1 virus — has been heightened by problems getting swine flu vaccine delivered in time to inoculate healthcare workers before the pandemic intensified in recent weeks.

The centerpiece of the new settlement is the establishment of an emergency task force pairing nurses with hospital administrators to oversee readiness throughout the Catholic Healthcare West system whenever a pandemic is declared.

Special nurses committees will be formed at each hospital in the network to work with infection-control teams in carrying out system-wide policies and procedures.


"This model gives front-line care givers a voice at the highest levels of decision-making within a corporate healthcare system," said Jill Furillo, the union’s chief negotiator.

Union chief Rose Ann DeMoro called it "an innovative model that every hospital in America should follow."

Catholic Healthcare West, which runs more than 40 hospitals in California, Arizona and Nevada, was more restrained in its comments, as was the American Hospital Association. Neither embraced the notion that the California nurses’ pact would set a precedent for others to follow.

"We have been focused on H1N1 for quite some time and welcome their additional collaboration with us," Catholic Healthcare spokeswoman Jill Dryer said. "Where that takes us in the future, or for others, has yet to be determined."

Alicia Mitchell of the American Hospital Association said the industry would continue to look to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for guidance.

The California Nurses Association, representing 86,000 registered nurses in all 50 U.S. states, has said compliance with CDC guidelines on H1N1 is uneven.

A survey of 190 hospitals by the group’s nurses in August found more than one in five lacked sufficient numbers of the disposable N95 respirator masks recommended by the CDC.

Where mask supplies were adequate, the survey found many nurses were instructed to reuse them, instead of disposing of them after each patient contact, as CDC guidelines urge.

Nurses at more than a quarter of the hospitals surveyed reported patients were not properly isolated, and fewer than half the nurses said they received adequate H1N1 training.

The labor pact, if ratified, will cover 13,000 registered nurses at 28 hospitals in California and four more in Nevada.

Furillo said a key factor in reaching the settlement was California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision last month to order the release of 25 million respirator masks, half the state’s stockpile, to ease shortages.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Chris Wilson)