On the frontlines battling the coronavirus, 3 American nurses say their hospitals are making it impossible for them to get tested for the disease

registered nurses

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  • Nurses around the world are on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, providing bedside care for COVID-19 patients.
  • But three US nurses told Business Insider that their hospitals are making it difficult for employees to get tested for the disease.
  • One nurse alleges the hospital she works at insisted she get tested for COVID-19 but refused to administer the test themselves.
  • An early study of coronavirus cases in the center of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, found that nearly a third of patients were medical professionals.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Feverish, clammy, and coughing, a nurse in Virginia went to her hospital's occupational health department to report that she might need to get tested for the coronavirus. Upon evaluation, she met eight of the 10 criteria set by the Sentara Healthcare system required for employees to get tested for COVID-19.

But instead of administering the test themselves, the discharge nurse told Business Insider the hospital forced her to leave the premises immediately to get screened for the disease elsewhere.

"The hospital insisted that I get tested but they refused to do it themselves," the 41-year-old nurse said. "They sent me home, put me on mandatory quarantine, and made me use my own vacation time."

As the new coronavirus sweeps the globe, nurses have been on the frontlines of battling the pandemic. But some American nurses are worried their hospitals are not doing their part to protect them, particularly when it comes to testing for the novel virus.

Business Insider spoke to three nurses in Virginia, Missouri, and Oregon, who alleged their hospitals are making it nearly impossible for health workers to get tested for the coronavirus and putting the lives and those of their patients at risk. The nurses' identities are known to us, but they requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.

"I put my life in danger every single day for John Doe and Jane Doe on the street regardless of who they are or where they come from, or their socioeconomic status," the Virginia nurse said.

"I do that for the hospital, and for the hospital to punish me because I'm helping someone is extremely unfair."

'Every day is a scary day and I am out of vacation time at this point'

After attending a large gathering with people who had recently traveled to Italy and disembarked cruise ships, the Virginia nurse began experiencing symptoms associated with the disease on March 9. She recalled initially writing them off.

"I actually had felt tired and had a headache for a couple of days and didn't think much of it," she told Business Insider. "I'm a nurse - I'm always exhausted and I always have a headache."

Her employer Sentara Healthcare, which employs more than 30,000 people across Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina, sent her an internal memo on March 10 outlining when employees should report possible exposure to the coronavirus. That same day, the healthcare company also confirmed that it had seen patients who tested positive for COVID-19 in a press release, though it didn't specify at which hospital locations.

While awaiting her test results, the Virginia nurse said she was forced to use two days of her vacation time for the mandatory quarantine.

She speculated that hospital systems are holding off on testing because it could result in lower staffing.

"If they test too many people and people start coming up positive or suspected then who knows? So it's gonna start dropping like flies, and then nobody's gonna be there to work," she said.

Since returning to work, the nurse said Sentara has further tightened its policy, only testing employees for COVID-19 if they violated the travel ban or cared for a patient who the CDC confirmed tested positive.

"We err on the side of caution and we quarantine an employee who may have been exposed and screens moderate to high risk," a spokesperson for Sentara Healthcare told Business Insider, adding they are now offering paid emergency sick leave and work from home options to employees who are exposed to the virus.

Sentara Healthcare did not share its specific policy on COVID-19 testing for its employees to Business Insider, but wrote in a press release that the healthcare giant had "shared detailed information to all of our care teams with the proper protocol and response measures should they come into contact with a potential COVID-19 patient."

"Every day is a scary day and I am out of vacation time at this point," the Virginia nurse said.

A Missouri nurse says a colleague couldn't get tested until she refused to work

At CoxHealth hospitals in Missouri, a maternal-child nurse said the hospital would not test a co-worker who was experiencing a fever and had spent time with family from areas hard-hit by the coronavirus. After her colleague refused to work, the nurse said, they agreed to test her.

The last she read her company's policy, employees are only tested if they have traveled to areas with high rates of transmission or are showing symptoms. A spokeswoman for CoxHealth didn't immediately respond to Business Insider's request for information on their testing policy.

Healthcare workers across the globe have fallen ill while battling the coronavirus pandemic. An early study of COVID-19 cases in the center of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, found that 29% of 138 patients at one hospital were medical professionals. Nurses, in particular, can be at a higher risk for infection because they give patients bedside care.

Although the Missouri nurse said she understood the hospital's attempts to be conservative with testing due to the state's limited testing capacity, she alleged her hospital is forcing its employees into mandatory quarantines without testing them.

"Criteria-wise I understand not wanting to waste precious tests on every fever or cough, but there has to be a point where you draw the line," she said. "I personally think if you're quarantined you should be tested, or if you're in direct patient care with a positive patient you should also be tested."

A Portland nurse said the requirements for COVID-19 screenings are so strict that 'it's almost impossible' to get tested

A 31-year-old ICU nurse in Portland, Oregon, who works for Kaiser Permanente said the requirements for testing are "so strict, that almost no one is allowed to get tested."

"It's almost impossible to have all of these criteria, which is why no employees have been tested, and very few patients," she told Business Insider. "I don't think that Kaiser is doing enough, but I think that's across the board for all hospital systems right now."

A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente told Business Insider that its criteria and priorities for testing are based on federal guidelines provided by the CDC and the Oregon Board of Health, and that they're "doing it in a way that limits exposure to others and protects their privacy."

The US overall has lagged in testing for the coronavirus compared to other countries, but is ramping up its capabilities.

By March 9, the US had performed five coronavirus tests per million people, compared with South Korea's 3,692 tests per million people. Delays and errors by the US government meant that many hospitals did not have the testing supplies they needed despite having patients who were experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus.

By Friday, the US had performed 339 tests per million people, but it still paled in comparison to South Korea's 6,109 tests per million people. New York state has performed 1,667 tests per million people.

Hospitals in Kaiser's Northwest region were disrupted in the early days of the US outbreak - the Hillsboro hospital was forced to put about 70 employees under mandatory home quarantine for suspected contact with a COVID-19 patient, the Oregonian reported.

The Portland nurse said to her knowledge, no nurses have been tested for COVID-19 - even those who have come in contact with known positive cases. Kaiser did not respond to inquiries about the number of employees tested for the coronavirus.

While hospitals are likely being conservative with testing due to limited capacity, the nurses Business Insider spoke with worry that withholding screening for medical care professionals could put their patients' lives and their own lives at risk.

"The frontline staff providing care should be the first people allowed to test," the Portland nurse said. "The people that come into the hospital are sick and high risk - I fear that I'm giving it to everyone."

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