The New York State Nurses Association filed three lawsuits against the state's Health Department and two hospitals in the Bronx and Westchester with various allegations saying nurses' health and safety are at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a lack of personal protective equipment and proper time off when nurses fall ill.
"These lawsuits were filed to protect our nurses, our patients and our communities from grossly inadequate and negligent protections," NYSNA Executive Director Pat Kane said in a statement.
The nurses' association sued the state health department in Manhattan's state supreme court, alleging that Governor Andrew Cuomo's directive that nurses be given a new N95 respirator mask daily is not being followed and that nurses are required to return to work seven days after testing for COVID-19, despite a recent law implementing a 14-day coronavirus sick leave policy for employers with 100 or more employees.
NYSNA also sued Montefiore Medical Center to press the hospital to honor contractual obligations and restore safe working conditions in federal court.
The association filed its third lawsuit against the Westchester Medical Center for allegedly intimidating nurses who have spoken about coronavirus safety issues in Westchester County's state supreme court.
Seven in 10 nurses across the association are reporting COVID-19 exposure, though most are untested, Kane added.
Nurses with NYSNA have been holding protests demanding more safety supplies at various hospital locations. At the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, one nurse said reusing an N95 mask prior to the pandemic would have been a "fireable offense." A health care worker at a NYC emergency room was seen wearing a garbage bag as protective equipment. At Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn, a private hospital, nurses said at least five employees at the hospital have died and several others have been hospitalized.
Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have repeatedly called on President Donald Trump to use the Defense Production Act to quickly ramp up production of needed supplies—from ventilators to N95 masks.
Nearly two dozen nurses filed affidavits detailing their experiences working as frontline healthcare workers.
Staten Island University Hospital nurse Cristal Torres, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, wrote she was given one N95 mask for a week, which she stored in a brown paper bag in a bin with others.
"There were no protocols or procedures for sanitizing the masks between shifts," Torres wrote. "Further, I failed the fit testing for this particular model of N95 respirator, yet [the hospital] failed to provide me with an alternate model."
She faulted the inadequate PPE for why she got the coronavirus and said she was encouraged to return to work after seven days, though she still had symptoms.
Montefiore nurse Pamella Brown-Richardson caught the coronavirus and spread it to her husband after she says she was not given proper personal protective equipment. She alleges that she was only permitted to use COVID-19 paid sick time for three days before dipping into her own previously accumulated days.
Westchester Medical Center only gave nurse Liesl Van Ledjte one N95 mask and one surgical mask on top of it for one week, Van Ledjte alleges.
"WMC did not fit-test me when it gave me my initial N95 respirator," Van Ledjte, who is waiting for COVID-19 test results, wrote. "Because the N95 respirator was too big and left large air pockets below my eyes, I was exposed to harmful infectious airborne molecules that could have reached my nose and mouth."
The state's health department spokesperson Jonah Bruno declined to comment on pending litigation, but said in a statement, "We are deeply grateful for the ongoing efforts of New York's health care workers to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by testing people who may be infected and treating those who are most in need."
"The State of New York continues to take every step necessary to ensure that health care workers, particularly those who are sampling and providing direct care, have the support and supplies needed to address this unprecedented public health emergency," Bruno added.
Montefiore spokesperson Tracy Gurrisi said in a statement that "NYSNA leadership has chosen to attack a system, and the commitment of thousands of their colleagues, who have followed the Governor's emergency orders and are selflessly doing all they can to fight COVID-19 and save lives."
Westchester Medical Center did not immediately respond to a request for comment.