The New York State Nurses Association filed suit Monday against the state and two hospital systems, alleging dangerous conditions that put health workers at risk and inflamed the country’s largest coronavirus outbreak.

The union, which represents 42,000 nurses across New York, alleged that the New York Department of Health failed to provide health workers with adequate protective equipment and directed health workers infected by Covid-19 to return to work sooner than advised by the state. The suit was filed in New York County Supreme Court.

The suit is among the first collective legal actions taken by health workers over the handling of the coronavirus outbreak by hospital administrators and state government.

“More than seven in ten of our nurses are reporting exposure to COVID-19 and most are still untested. These lawsuits were filed to protect our nurses, our patients and our communities from grossly inadequate and negligent protections,” NYSNA Executive Director Pat Kane said in a statement. “We cannot allow these dangerous practices to continue.”

In a statement, the New York Department of Health said it is “deeply grateful” for the work health care workers provide and “continues to take every step necessary to ensure that health care workers…have the support and supplied needed to address this unprecedented public health emergency.”

The union also filed suit against the Montefiore Medical Center system in Manhattan federal court on behalf of its 3,000 registered nurses employed by the system. NYSNA also sued the Westchester Medical Center in Westchester County Supreme Court on behalf of its 1,600 members employed by the system. 

Both complaints describe conditions in the hospitals as “a war zone,” adding that health workers are “without the essential tools they need to do their job and keep themselves safe.”

The suits allege that the hospital systems were unprepared to address the Covid-19 outbreak, put health workers in dangerous environments and failed to provide them adequate protective equipment like masks and gowns.

“… I began experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, including cough and fever,” Montefiore nurse Pamela Brown-Richardson said in an affidavit. “I reported my symptoms to Montefiore and asked for testing. I was informed that Montefiore would not test me… I obtained testing on my own… [and] found out that I tested positive for COVID-19.”

NYSNA said in the complaints that at least 150 of its members at Montefiore and 11 at Westchester Medical Center have tested positive for Covid-19. State-wide, at least eight members of NYSNA have died due due to Covid-19 and 84 have been hospitalized, the complaint against Montefiore said. However, the union said the true impact on New York’s nurses is likely greater than reported due to limited testing capacity.

“NYSNA leadership has chosen to attack a system, and the commitment of thousands of their colleagues, who have followed the Governor’s emergency orders and are selflessly doing all they can to fight COVID-19 and save lives,” Montefiore said in a statement.

“…We know, and our care providers know, that the allegations in NYSNA’s lawsuit are wrong,” Westchester Medical Center Health Network said in a statement. “NYSNA’s lawsuit is irresponsible and a distraction from this work, and a disservice to all who are valiantly caring for these patients every day.”

New York state is grappling with the worst outbreak in the U.S. with more than 248,431 of the nation’s 766,212 cases, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said earlier Monday that some projections of the state’s outbreak suggest it may be on the verge of a “descent,” but daily Covid-19 deaths in New York remain “horrifically high.”

Cuomo said Monday that front-line workers, who have been overwhelmed by the surge in patients and have higher rates of infection, deserve to be paid for their efforts.

“When you were home dealing with cabin fever, they were out there dealing with the coronavirus,” Cuomo said at a news briefing. “Pay them what they deserve. I would say hazard pay, give them a 50% bonus, and I would do that now.”

Women, people of color and people from low-income households, who make up large percentages of the state’s front-line workforce, are disproportionately affected by the outbreak, Cuomo said.

“The economy did not close down. It closed down, essentially, for the people who had the luxury of staying at home,” he said, adding that the infection rate among “brown Americans and African Americans” is higher than that of other groups.

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