The Massachusetts Nurses Association has called for Governor Charlie Baker to declare a state of emergency through the end of March and establish new protections for health care workers who are exhausted by the crushing demands of the pandemic, according to a letter from the group.
Union President Katie Murphy, a registered nurse, warned in the letter Thursday that the state’s health care system is nearing a breaking point and said Baker should reinstate the provisions of his March 10, 2020, emergency declaration, made one day before the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
“Healthcare workers are overwhelmed and burned out,” Murphy said in the letter. “Healthcare facilities are overrun with both COVID-19 patients and those individuals who delayed care throughout the pandemic, and the system is buckling under the pressure. We are closer than we have ever been to the collapse of the healthcare system.”
The MNA represents more than 23,000 registered nurses and health professionals at 85 facilities across the state, including Boston Medical Center, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Tufts Medical Center, and Newton-Wellesley Hospital.
Murphy recommended Baker reinstate temporary expedited licenses for nurses from outside Massachusetts, impose stricter hospital visitor policies, restore liability protections for workers operating outside their areas of practice, and require that medical facilities provide single-use N95 masks to staff who interact with patients.
The Baker administration on Saturday didn’t directly respond to the union’s letter. Instead, a spokeswoman pointed to actions Baker has taken since November to support the health care system, including ordering reductions in non-essential, non-urgent surgeries, allowing nurses in intensive care units to be reassigned, and calling up National Guard members to perform nonclinical work in hospitals.
On Tuesday, the Baker administration also announced the launch of an at-home rapid test program for public school students, the spokeswoman said.
Earlier this month, the Baker administration issued an emergency order and other measures aimed at reducing the number of patients in hospitals by improving conditions in nursing homes, where COVID-19 outbreaks and worker shortages have led to admissions freezes that have forced some hospital patients to wait weeks for available beds, the Globe reported.
The order requires health care workers at nursing homes and assisted living facilities to receive a COVID-19 booster shot by Feb. 28. State officials also eased a rule that forced nursing homes to stop accepting new patients in response to coronavirus infections among residents and staff, and they offered state-paid health care teams to nursing homes that agree to take hospital patients who need short-term rehabilitation.
Hospitalizations related to coronavirus surged dramatically between early November, when they averaged about 500 per day across Massachusetts, to a peak on Jan. 14 of 3,306 hospitalizations, according to state data. Since then, the numbers have begun to decline, with the state reporting 3,144 hospitalizations on Jan. 19, the most recent date for which numbers are available.
In Murphy’s letter, she said health care professionals are “physically and mentally drained from their experience during previous waves of this pandemic” and frustrated with their working conditions.
It is hard for workers to get tested for COVID-19 or obtain booster shots, visitor policies vary widely and often put hospital staff at increased risk of infection, and nurses are being sent to units outside their areas of expertise without clear guidance or support, according to the letter.
Murphy called on Baker to require health care facilities to provide on-site testing and booster shots for employees and to disregard the most recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and return to the state’s previous requirement that health care workers who test positive for COVID-19 quarantine for 10 days, or for seven if they have a negative coronavirus test.
She said the state should provide more support for school nurses, encourage the local production of protective equipment, and repeal regulations that make it easier for nurses to change their status to “travel” nurses and make more money, which she said destabilizes the workforce.
“As the pandemic evolves, more action is needed,” Murphy said. “We must ensure that the best interests of patients and frontline healthcare personnel are guiding our decisions.”
Laura Crimaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.