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Brooklyn Hospital Workers Protest, Demanding Equipment To Prevent More Staff Deaths

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center is a small private hospital in central Brooklyn under siege by the coronavirus. Health care workers there are dying - so many of them that their colleagues took to the streets to protest. Gwynne Hogan from member station WNYC was there.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No more deaths. No more deaths.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: No more deaths. These health care workers are demanding better access to protective equipment to stop more of their colleagues from dying. Ada Brown is a certified nursing assistant, or CNA.

ADA BROWN: We have to be better in order to save lives. The nurses dying out. The CNAs dying out. Everybody's dying out.

HOGAN: Two dozen workers rallied outside the hospital, spread out along the sidewalk. Kingsbrook is a 300-bed facility in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a majority-black, working-class neighborhood home to many people of Caribbean descent. There are no official statistics on how many health care workers have gotten sick across the region or have died from the virus. The city says 26 employees at public hospitals have passed away but that they're not tracking deaths at private hospitals like Kingsbrook. The state health department says it's not counting the deaths of health care workers at private hospitals either. Nurse Julie Keefe.

JULIE KEEFE: There's announcements from the school system about education workers who've died. There's announcements from transit authority about transit workers that have died. But about health care workers, there's a bit of a feeling that no one's really tracking the deaths.

HOGAN: In the absence of an official count, the nurses at Kingsbrook have been quietly collecting the names of their dead colleagues by word of mouth - a young surgeon, a nurse's assistant, a clerk, a security guard, someone who worked in the supply room - at least five deaths so far, they say, and more hospitalized. For a point of comparison, New York's largest private hospital system - Northwell Health, with 23 hospitals across the region - says five of its employees have died, the same number that workers are reporting at this one location.

ARLENE MEERTENS: If we are continuously working without the proper gear that we need, we will all die. So who will take care of the patients?

HOGAN: That's Arlene Meertens, a patient care technician and a mother of seven.

MEERTENS: We are leaving our family at home, and we are coming here even if we're tired, even if we're afraid. Let us know that our work is not in vain.

HOGAN: She and her co-workers say everything's in short supply. A disposable face shield is supposed to last a month. One nurse is wearing a thin plastic rain poncho because she couldn't find a gown. Another says on a recent shift, she had to patch up a ripped gown with a trash bag. Another nurse at the rally is in an enviable full-body hazmat suit with a plastic head covering. She says she bought it for herself on Amazon. Meertens says they're not asking for much.

MEERTENS: Protect us. That's all we are asking. Give us what we need so we can survive.

HOGAN: State officials that oversee the city's private hospitals say they have additional protective gear and are distributing it but didn't return a request about Kingsbrook. Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center also didn't respond to a request for comment.

For NPR News, I'm Gwynne Hogan in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.