Mass. nurses worry about Ebola preparedness

An ambulance carrying Amber Joy Vinson, the second health care worker to be diagnosed with Ebola in Texas, arrives at Emory University Hospital on Wednesday.
David Tulis/AP
An ambulance carrying Amber Joy Vinson, the second health care worker to be diagnosed with Ebola in Texas, arrives at Emory University Hospital on Wednesday.

As a second nurse fell ill in Dallas, the union representing thousands of Massachusetts nurses sounded alarms Wednesday about the adequacy of Ebola preparations at hospitals in the state.

“For us, it’s hit home,” said Donna Kelly-Williams, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, noting that the only people to become infected with Ebola in the United States are nurses. “What I am seeing firsthand and what I have heard from nurses across the state — there are not the preparations we need.”

But hospital officials said they have been working on preparations since the summer and are responding as quickly as they can to shifting circumstances and new knowledge.


“The truth is that we attempted to be proactive from the beginning,” said Dr. Eric Goralnick, medical director of emergency preparedness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Now it’s here, and we can feel it. Anxiety is high. We’ve got to take it up to the next notch, and we are taking it up.”

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Nurses said they are worried because someone returning from West Africa with symptoms of Ebola could seek care in any medical setting, and a nurse is likely to be the first person to interact with the patient. They say they are equally concerned about being assigned, without adequate training, to care for an Ebola patient once admitted.

Some hospitals have decided to provide training strategically. At Brigham and Women’s, for example, administrators are not going to train all 16,000 employees in donning and removing personal protective equipment, Goralnick said. Instead, the hospital will thoroughly train a special team to respond to an Ebola case.

Kelly-Williams, a nurse at Cambridge Health Alliance, said nurses across the state have told her that their only training has been an e-mail guiding them to a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. And she said nurses report that most hospitals do not have hazmat suits and respirators to protect those caring for an Ebola patient.

The Massachusetts Hospital Association asserted in a statement Wednesday that the state’s hospitals, with guidance from the state Department of Public Health, have been conducting Ebola response training, plan more training, and have personal protective equipment available.


“All Massachusetts hospitals have established policies for containing and treating all types of contagious diseases,” the statement said.

Still, nurses are concerned.

“Dallas was a big eye-opener,” said Karen Higgins, copresident of National Nurses United, parent of the Massachusetts nurses’ union. “The status quo is not going to work.”

Hospitals across the country have protocols for handling infectious diseases, but Ebola is “something that’s out of the realm of what we would routinely take care of,” Higgins said.

She has spoken out nationally, insisting most hospitals have failed to prepare adequately.


But on Wednesday, she said Boston Medical Center, where she works as an intensive care nurse, had “stepped up to the plate.” Although training had been minimal to date, she said, the hospital now has plans for one-on-one training and drills.

“They were one of the first places to respond to what’s happening in Dallas,” she said. “I applaud them.”

Boston Medical said in a statement the hospital “has educated relevant staff in the care of suspected or actual cases of Ebola consistent with pertinent local, state, and national guidelines.”

More than 200 training sessions are planned over the next two weeks, administrators said. Hospital officials said in a statement there is personal protective equipment “for relevant staff who will care for a suspected or actual cases.”

The disclosure that a second Texas nurse is stricken with the viral ailment followed frenzied responses in the Boston area over the Columbus Day weekend. When a patient who had traveled to Liberia went to a Braintree medical practice feeling ill, the patient was isolated, and the clinic was temporarily closed. On Monday, hazmat teams raced to a jet at Logan Airport after reports of five people with flulike symptoms aboard an Emirates flight.

In both incidents, Ebola was quickly ruled out — but not before anxiety intensified.

Patricia Powers, an operating room nurse and union chairwoman at Brigham and Women’s, said there was chaos at the hospital Monday as news broke of the Logan cases.

“There were people who were crying: ‘We don’t know what to do. We don’t have the proper equipment,’ ” Powers said.

Powers said training has consisted of a brief lunchtime session in the coffee room, at which nurses were shown a water-resistant suit that could be worn.

“There’s not one nurse that feels adequately prepared or trained,” said Meredith Scannell, an emergency nurse and union representative at the Brigham. “People are scared.”

She said that the hospital has hazmat suits and specialized respirators but that it has provided no training on using them.

But Goralnick, Brigham and Women’s emergency preparedness director, said the hospital has been “focused on this like a laser beam” since July 29 and has communicated about Ebola preparations with the staff multiple times.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association said nurses had been denied an opportunity to speak at the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Health on Thursday, when Ebola preparations are the topic.

Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and the committee’s chairman, said the hearing is intended to educate legislators on the basics of how Ebola is transmitted and what steps are being taken to prepare. With a dozen speakers already on the agenda, he said, there is not time for more. But he said he plans to hold a second hearing at which front-line health workers can speak.

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at