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Nurses say ND’s response to COVID-19 ‘is a dumpster fire’

“Nurses are going to break down. They’re going to burn out. We’re going to lose them.”
Published: Nov. 13, 2020 at 6:25 PM CST
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FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - North Dakota nurses are hitting their breaking points as COVID-19 continues to surge through the state.

One Infectious Disease Specialist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health says he believes North Dakota’s virus trajectory officially puts it in crisis. Dr. Amesh Adalja added the state is ‘a lesson for what happens for when you don’t plan for cases.’

While Sanford Health denied the allegations, several Sanford nurses tell Valley News Live over 70 traveling nurses have ended their contracts in Fargo early due to what they cited as ‘poor working conditions.’

One former traveler says she left after three weeks due to little staff, calling her time working in North Dakota ‘a s*** show.’

“Horrifically understaffed, they took an old hospital slated for renovating and set it up for a COVID hospital. Little staff, mostly travelers swimming in the deep understaffed with a hastily set up supply room without supplies! Room don’t get Cleaned, there are NO NA, and very unsafe conditions. Electricity went out twice with all patients on vents!! Pharmacy can’t keep up so meds not available. I left after 3 weeks stating physical, mental and moral. It’s not worth it and my license is too precious. Sanford doesn’t want anything but bodies. Never again.”

“That’s scary. That gives me goosebumps. That’s not the reason we want to be in headlines,” North Dakota Nurse’s Association President Tessa Johnson said in response to the post.

Valley News Live is not naming the woman who shared her experience. Several Fargo nurses have reached out to our Whistle Blower Hotline over the last few weeks, however, all have asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. Johnson says her experience has been the same with nurses all over the state.

"They very much want to remain anonymous. They want to listen, they want to get their information out, but they do not want to use their name and that’s sad,” Johnson said.

Local nurses say less hands on deck has left ICU and COVID-unit nurses with double or triple the amount of patient loads.

“That’s concerning. As nurses, we just generally want to give our all in safety and care and compassion and when you’re spread so thin that’s really difficult,” Johnson said.

In an effort to fight against staff shortages, emails provided to us by Sanford nurses indicate nurses are required to pick up 36 extra hours between now and Christmas Eve— A decision Johnson says is only going to lead to burnouts and break downs. Bryan Nermoe, President of Sanford Fargo confirms that nurses have been asked to pick up 36 extra hours.

“It absolutely has to be a nurse’s choice. We cannot just be run to the ground,” Johnson said. She adds nurses have told her the extra shifts won’t necessarily be in the department they already work in, as they will be placed where needed. Johnson says this is daunting for many nurses as they may be placed in a unity they’re not comfortable in or have no experience for.

Elective surgeries already on the books continue at Sanford, a move Johnson says many Fargo nurses say ‘disgusts them.’

“There’s only so much you can take. There’s only so much you can put your life and your family’s life and your children’s life and your own well-being at risk day in and day out,” Johnson said.

In an email to staff Monday, Sanford Health activated the next stage of their surge plan which adds 35 more hospitals beds and an additional 14 rooms are under construction.

“Why didn’t they they communicate that to their staff nine months ago so that now that we’re in this crisis, they could have known what to expect? Then it would have been easier to roll out if they knew what to expect. But now, we’re here in a crisis mode, here’s a surge plan we have to start it immediately,” Johnson said.

Johnson says while she doesn’t know what the right solution is, she does know state and local leaders need to start basing decisions off hard science. Johnson says in eight months, Gov. Doug Burgum has not reached out to anyone in the state’s nurses association. Johnson says the lack of communication and relationship between the state and healthcare workers many makes nurses feel unvalued and unappreciated.

“We’re throwing some loose guidelines out there but it’s not working! That’s exactly it. It’s a dumpster fire,” she said. "We’re preparing ourselves for the worst that’s yet to come and that’s terrifying. Working long hours, trying to manage staffing crisis and patient safety and the grief of deaths, everybody’s just kind of hanging by a thread.”

Sanford Health’s full statement below:

"We literally have hundreds of contract nurses right now. We hear over and over again that they are having a wonderful experience here. There is a nationwide shortage - everyone needs nurses. Like most hospitals, we are recruiting more. Our focus is on supplementing our existing nurses with contract staff to make sure our team has the support they need to provide great care for the growing number of patients we are caring for.

As the demand for our hospital services continues to increase, our priority is on our employees and physicians, and making sure they have what they need to care for the people in our region and beyond. We are reassigning staff to work in our hospitals. This may mean some clinic appointments, surgeries and other procedures may be shifted. Our surge plan remains focused on our employees and the critical role they play in meeting the needs of our patients.

Caring for the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 positive patients is not sustainable for hospitals. We need the public’s help. You are all now part of the health care team. We need you to mask up, practice good hand hygiene, avoid large gatherings, social distance and get a flu shot."

-Theresa Larson, Sanford Health Vice President of Nursing

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