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‘Not aggressive enough’ | Healthcare, first responder unions urge DC mayor to change approach on coronavirus testing

The organizations fear doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other healthcare workers will be unable to treat patients if too many of them get sick.

WASHINGTON — A coalition of unions representing healthcare workers and first responders is calling on the D.C. government to take a more aggressive approach on coronavirus testing.

The organizations fear doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other healthcare workers will be unable to treat patients if too many of them get sick.

The organizations, which include the D.C. Nurses Association (DCNA), D.C. Firefighters Association, D.C. Police Union and more, want the city to change two main areas in its testing guidelines.

First, representatives want healthcare professionals who encounter patients who test positive for COVID-19 tested right away regardless of if any symptoms are showing.

Next, the unions are calling for a 14-day period of paid precautionary leave or quarantine for all healthcare professionals who have been exposed to the coronavirus.

“We’re frightened. We’re frightened,” Roberta Lenoir said.

Lenoir, who is an emergency nurse at United Medical Center (UMC), sounded the alarm about the healthcare community’s fears of the unknown which lies ahead for the coronavirus pandemic in the District.

“This is just the beginning. We have not even started to get into the peak of this conundrum,” she said.

Lenoir explained staffing and equipment are not immediate at her hospital in Southeast, D.C.

However, she is one of the healthcare workers on the front lines of the crisis who has already encountered a patient who tested positive for COVID-19.

“I was tested and retested,” Lenoir said while in quarantine.

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The DCNA said the immediate testing that happened for Lenoir is not guaranteed for all healthcare workers in the District.

“The guidelines, we feel, are not aggressive enough,” Edward Smith said.

Smith, who is DCNA’s Executive Director, along with other healthcare and first responder unions sent a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on April 6.

The letter urges D.C. Health to put healthcare workers in a higher testing priority group regardless of symptoms and to ensure pay during a two-week quarantine period.

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WUSA9 took DCNA’s concerns to D.C. Health, and a health department spokesperson responded with the following statement:

"DC Health remains in communication with our health care system, and has issued guidance and health notices to inform and protect our healthcare personnel (HCP), including nurses. As noted in the Health Notice dated March 26th 2020, healthcare facility workers with symptoms are a Priority 1 testing group. In a guidance document dated March 21 2020, we note that it is not recommended to test HCPs who are asymptomatic, regardless of exposure--however, home-quarantine is recommended for HCP with medium or high-risk exposure. 

This guidance is based on currently available data about COVID-19. Recommendations may not anticipate every potential scenario and will change as the local response progresses. Healthcare facilities should use clinical judgment as well as the recommendations in posted guidance documents to create to internal policies that address HCP monitoring, testing, and returns to work in the context of COVID-19. Guidance will be refined and updated as more information becomes available and as response needs change."

According to the District’s guidelines, healthcare workers with symptoms are in the first priority testing category.

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However, healthcare workers and first responders without symptoms are third in line for priority testing.

Smith and Lenior believe, under the current guidance, the testing may happen after a nurse or doctor spreads the virus without knowing.

The union’s letter to the mayor stated, “the incubation period for COVID-19 is up to about 14 days, based on available evidence. Accordingly, it may take up to 14 days after exposure to know if an individual has been infected. The test (RT-PCR) for COVID-19 detects viral particles in a sample. A positive test indicates that there are enough viral particles in the sample to register as a positive result. A negative test indicates that there are no or not enough viral particles present in the test to register.”

As of Tuesday morning, the mayor’s office has not responded to the letter.

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