Nicholas Kristof: We are betraying our doctors and nurses

Doctors and nurses responding to the COVID-19 pandemic are the superheroes of our age, putting themselves at risk to save the lives of others.

At least 61 doctors and nurses have died from the coronavirus in Italy so far. Already, in New York City alone, two nurses have died and more than 200 health workers are reported sick at a single major hospital.

These superheroes are at risk partly because we sometimes send them into battle without adequate personal protective equipment, or PPE. This should be a national scandal, and now hospitals are compounding the outrage by punishing staff members who speak up or simply try to keep themselves safe.

In Bellingham, Washington, an emergency room physician, Dr. Ming Lin, pleaded on social media for better protections for patients and the staff at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, where he had worked for 17 years.

“I do fear for my staff,” Lin warned. “Morally, I think when you see something wrong, you have to speak out.”

The hospital responded by terminating Lin.

Lin told me that he had no regrets, but he asked supporters not to circulate petitions on his behalf for fear that such an effort would distract from managing the pandemic.

Charles Prosper, CEO of the hospital network, wouldn’t take my call, although he said in a statement that he regretted losing “such a long-standing and talented member of our medical staff.” The PeaceHealth board should recognize that its hospital has more need for an experienced ER doctor than for a bungling CEO.

Hospitals sometimes discourage staffers even from bringing their own protective gear, for fear of scaring patients or leaving other employees feeling unprotected. In New York City, Dr. Ania Ringwelski, an ER physician, was concerned by what she felt was insufficient PPE supplied by Weill Cornell Medical Center, so last week she obtained her own.

“I want to help out, but I need to feel protected,” Ringwelski told me. “I’m not expecting the hospital to provide it in this time of shortage, but if I can procure it on my own, then I’d like to be able to wear it.”

The hospital refused to allow this and sent her home. Her future is unclear.

Weill Cornell told me in a statement that it issues “appropriate” PPE and that it can’t allow doctors to bring their own “of unknown provenance and safety.” That’s a pretty patronizing way for hospital executives to treat professionals who are risking their lives.

In Chicago, a nurse, Lauri Mazurkiewicz, warned colleagues that standard face masks distributed by the hospital were not safe. She brought in her own higher-grade N95 mask — and was fired by Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She is now suing the hospital, which declined to comment except to tell me that its practices are safe.

In Texas, my colleague Matt Richtel reported on an anesthesiologist, Dr. Henry Nikicicz, who in effect was suspended without pay because he wore a mask in public places in the hospital. The hospital relented after it was asked for comment.

Tension arises not only because of shortages of PPE but also because of uncertainty about how much protection is optimal. No one knows. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given conflicting advice, and other countries have varying standards. Singapore avoided infections with modest PPE, while Chinese doctors and nurses now use full-body coverings much more substantial than the protective clothing in the U.S.

Meanwhile, American health workers see colleagues falling sick. At Weill Cornell, a former ER doctor is now fighting for her life on a ventilator.

“We’re seeing our fellow caregivers getting sick, and we’re stressed out,” said another Weill Cornell emergency room physician, who feared being fired if his name were published. “Within one morning, I saw a gastroenterologist, an internist, a nurse and a pulmonologist” — he was talking about his patients — “and you want to protect yourself.”

It’s baffling that the richest country in the history of the world fails so abysmally at protecting its health workers, especially when it had two months’ lead time. And for hospitals now to retaliate against health workers who try to protect themselves — ousting them just when they are most needed — is both unconscionable and idiotic.

On websites like allnurses.com, nurses wonder whether they can refuse to work because of inadequate PPE or even whether they should quit the profession.

The doctors, nurses, technicians and cleaning staff members on the front of this pandemic deserve our eternal gratitude. Instead, we’re betraying them: They have our back, but we don’t have theirs.

“We still don’t have enough masks; we still don’t have enough gowns,” said a resident at a New York hospital who asked not to be named for fear of being punished. “Our necks are exposed, our hair is exposed, and our colleagues are getting sick.

“Many of my colleagues are making wills, and they’ve sent their families away. People are scared and rightfully so. We see it every day. We see the COVID people coming in, short of breath and dying right in front of us.”

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.