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Muzzling Health Care Professionals Who Wish to Speak Out About Coronavirus-Related Shortages Endangers Public Health

Health Letter, April 2020

By Michael Carome, M.D.

Image: JHDT Productions/Shutterstock.com

Attempts by hospital administrators to muzzle health care workers who speak out about coronavirus caseloads and supply shortages are appalling and reprehensible, 54 organizations, including Public Citizen, said in a March 27, 2020, letter to the American Hospital Association (AHA).

Over the past month, confirmed cases of novel coronavirus infection in the U.S. exploded from 62 on March 1 to more than 180,000 on March 31. In hotspots such as New York City, Boston, Detroit and New Orleans, hospitals are starting to be overwhelmed as coronavirus cases surge and critical hospital supplies for protecting health care workers from the infection (such as masks, gowns and gloves) and for treating patients (such as intensive care unit beds and mechanical ventilators) dwindle.

Protecting the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals on the front lines of the fight against this global pandemic from becoming infected themselves is essential for preventing the collapse of local health care systems and widespread deaths.

Although many doctors and nurses have spoken to the media about shortages of masks, other personal protective equipment and ventilators, the media recently reported that some doctors, nurses and other health care workers have been threatened by hospital administrators with disciplinary action for speaking out about coronavirus patient caseloads and dwindling hospital supplies needed to care for such patients. Medscape recounted that “some worry the gag orders are muddying the picture of how hospitals are faring in the pandemic, while placing the safety of frontline workers at risk.”

On March 25, the Chicago Tribune reported that a nurse at a Chicago hospital was fired for warning her colleagues that the masks provided by the hospital failed to provide sufficient protection against the coronavirus.

Likewise, according a March 27 story in The Seattle Times, an emergency room doctor at a hospital in Bellingham, WA, was fired for complaining about a lack of protective measures against the coronavirus at his workplace. The doctor told the paper that supervisors threatened his employment more than a week before his termination “after he spoke to reporters and made social media posts accusing [his hospital] of a lack of urgency to protect health care workers from the virus.” He also had been directed to delete his social media post but refused.

As explained in the March 27 letter to the AHA, during this global pandemic, it is critical that the public and government officials be made fully aware of the scope of shortages in personal protective masks, mechanical ventilators, hospital beds and other vital equipment. That way, appropriate steps can be taken to mitigate these shortages, appropriately and fairly allocate limited medical resources, and thus protect the safety and welfare of health care workers and patients alike, the letter said.

The groups signing the letter — which included consumer advocacy, workers’ rights, science, public health, civil rights, human rights, and grassroots political organizations and labor unions — further stated that attempts to cover up coronavirus-related shortages by muzzling health care workers who are on the front lines of fighting the pandemic are reprehensible and reckless and endanger public health. Although such actions may be commonplace in countries with authoritarian regimes, they are not acceptable in the U.S.

The groups demanded that the AHA publicly denounce any threats of disciplinary action for speaking out during this pandemic and call on its member hospitals to encourage health care workers to speak freely about coronavirus patient caseloads, dwindling hospital supplies and any other challenges that should be immediately addressed.