The nation's largest nurses' union spoke out allegedly on behalf of nurses at a Dallas hospital who claimed that a haphazard and sloppy care system was maintained during the treatment of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to die of the Ebola virus in America last week.
RoseAnne DeMoro, executive director of Nurses United, said the statement came from "several" and "a few" nurses, but she refused repeated inquiries to state how many. She said the organization vetted the claims, and that the nurses cited were in a position to know what had occurred at the hospital.
The National Nurses United does not represent the nursing staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, and did not identify any nurses making the alleged claims.
According to the statement released Tuesday by the union, the nurses alleged Duncan was left in an open area of the hospital's emergency room for hours and that nurses worked for days without protective gear.
The nurses' allegations came two days after a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian, 26-year-old Nina Pham, tested positive for the virus and entered treatment at the hospital. She is listed as being in stable condition. Pham was one of over 70 staffers who cared for Duncan during his illness and who are being monitored for possible infection. A second nurse, Amber Vinson, who was also treating Duncan, has since tested positive for the virus.
Deborah Burger of National Nurses United claimed that the nurses were forced to use medical tape to secure openings in their garments, worried that their necks and heads were exposed as they cared for a patient whose symptoms included explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting.
Wendell Watson, a Presbyterian spokesman, did not respond to specific claims by the nurses but said the hospital has not received similar complaints.
"Patient and employee safety is our greatest priority and we take compliance very seriously," he said in a statement. "We have numerous measures in place to provide a safe working environment, including mandatory annual training and a 24/7 hotline and other mechanisms that allow for anonymous reporting."
He said the hospital would "review and respond to any concerns raised by our nurses and all employees."
Among the other allegations raised by the nurses in the statement are that Duncan's lab samples were allowed to travel through the hospital's pneumatic tubes, opening the possibility of contaminating the specimen delivery system. The nurses also alleged that hazardous waste was allowed to pile up to the ceiling.
The statement also claimed that Duncan was initially kept in a non-isolated area of the hospital's emergency room for several hours before being moved. Patients who were exposed to him were allegedly only kept in isolation for a day before being moved to be with other patients. In the same vein, the nurses claim that they were made to treat other patients while also treating Duncan, and were offered no more than an optional seminar to deal with changing guidelines.
"There was no advance preparedness on what to do with the patient, there was no protocol, there was no system," Burger said.
Even today, Burger said, some hospital staff at the Dallas hospital do not have proper equipment to handle the outbreak.
"Hospital managers have assured nurses that proper equipment has been ordered but it has not arrived yet," she said.
The statement said nurses had to "interact with Mr. Duncan with whatever protective equipment was available," even as he produced "a lot of contagious fluids." Duncan's medical records, which his family shared with The Associated Press, underscore some of those concerns.
Almost 12 hours after he arrived in the emergency room by ambulance, his hospital chart says Duncan "continues to have explosive diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea and projectile vomiting." He was feverish and in pain.
When Ebola was suspected but unconfirmed, a doctor wrote "using the disposable shoe covers should also be considered." At that point, by all protocols, those shoe covers should have been mandatory to prevent anyone from tracking contagious body fluids around the hospital.
A few days later, however, entries in the hospital charts suggest that protection was improving.
"RN entered room in Tyvek suits, triple gloves, triple boots, and respirator cap in place," wrote a nurse.
The Presbyterian nurses are not represented by Nurses United or any other union. DeMoro and Burger said the nurses claimed they had been warned by the hospital not to speak to the media or they would be fired. They did not specify whether the nurses making the claims were among Duncan's caregivers.
The AP has attempted since last week to contact dozens of individuals involved in Duncan's care. Those who responded to reporters' inquiries have so far been unwilling to speak.
David R. Wright, deputy regional administrator for the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which monitors patient safety and has the authority to withhold federal funding, said his agency is going to want to get all of the information the nurses provided.
"We can't talk about whether we're going to investigate or not, but we'd be interested in hearing that information," he said.
CDC officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Duncan first sought care at the hospital's ER late on Sept. 25 and was sent home the next morning. He was rushed by ambulance back to the hospital on Sept. 28. Unlike his first visit, mention of his recent arrival from Liberia immediately roused suspicion of an Ebola risk, records show.
The CDC said Tuesday 76 people at the hospital could have been exposed to Duncan after his second ER visit. Another 48 people are being monitored for possible exposure before he was hospitalized.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.