Coronavirus News: Traveling nurses recall "It was like a medical war zone"

NEW YORK (WABC) -- They're being called the heroes of the pandemic, the nurses who people cheered for every night as the number of positive cases continued to grow in the Tri-State area.

More than 4,000 travel nurses came to New York City to work in public hospitals at the height of the pandemic. Now that they're back home, some of them are reflecting on what they experienced and speaking out about what more could be done to help protect patients and front line workers in case a second outbreak happens.

"It was like a medical war zone"

Nurses came to New York City to work for a month from all over the country. 7 On Your Side Investigators spoke to nurses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and Oregon.

Each of the nurses was assigned to work at Coney Island Hospital, a public hospital in Brooklyn that's operated by NYC Health + Hospitals. It's a zip code that was hit hard by COVID-19. Close to 300 people died of the virus in the surrounding neighborhood alone.

"It was just complete chaos," said Nurse Eileen Diaz who traveled from her home in Eastern Pennsylvania to work. "It was like a medical war zone."

The traveling nurses said at one point, each was responsible for treating more than 20 ICU patients at a time. It's something NYC Heath and Hospitals denies. A spokesperson said at no point was one nurse caring for that many patients.

"Most of the people that was regular staff there, was off on leave," said Nurse John Gartin who lives in Columbus, Ohio, and traveled to help out. "It was something I never thought I would see in my lifetime."

Reusing PPE equipment and finding stockpile

While treating multiple patients, the nurses said they were left wearing the same personal protective equipment for five days at a time.

"I was very nervous that I was going to get sick myself so it was very scary," said Nurse Samantha Phillips who traveled to work in NYC from her home in El Paso, Texas.
"They were handing out N95 masks and told us we'd get one every five days and then they told us they were out of everything else," said Phillips.

Even, when they said, their gowns were soiled with feces and blood.

"I was told it wasn't enough blood, that I would be alright," said Gartin. "I was dumbfounded by it."

The nurses said they reached out to their team leader, Dan Gustafson, who was also a fellow travel nurse from Oregon.

"It was an unimaginable hell to be quite honest," said Gustafson.

Gustafson said after spending days wearing the same equipment, he made what he calls a disturbing discovery. He found a room full of boxes of supplies. Various medical equipment from hospital gowns to face masks.

"Literally pallets of PPE," said Gustafson. "I was like wow, wait a second, they've been telling us through the most dangerous pandemic in modern history that they don't have this stuff."

An NYC Health and Hospital spokesperson told 7 On Your Side Investigates that like all hospitals, Coney Island had conservation efforts in place but that all workers had access to the necessary PPE for the patients they cared for.

"I was in disbelief, how could they treat us like this," said Phillips.
Treating COVID vs. non COVID patients

The hospital said patients were isolated in different zones based on their symptoms. But the travel nurses said when it came to caring for COVID and non-COVID patients, there was little distinction.

"We never separated the sick from the healthy no matter what it was," said Gustafson.

Some of the nurses themselves tested positive, including Nurse Diaz, who said she quarantined for a week and went back to work.

"I had a headache, body aches, and was just so tired," said Diaz.

If another wave hits, the nurses said more nurses, more equipment and more separation is needed to improve care and to help save lives.

"We didn't have the resources we were choosing who lives and who dies," said Gustafson.

Hospital responds to investigation

In a statement, a spokesperson for NYC Health + Hospitals sent us this statement in regards to nurses experiences:

"NYC Health + Hospitals has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, providing the highest quality care to all New Yorkers in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic. Lives were saved across our city at the virus's peak thanks to the heroic efforts of our staff, and we are so grateful to the out-of-state nurses that came to our aid to save lives in our city's darkest hour. The City's public health system remains focused on providing the highest possible care for New Yorkers across our 11 hospitals for the duration of the crisis."

WATCH THE SERIES: EYEWITNESS TO A PANDEMIC (Episode 6 below)
EMBED More News Videos

Suddenly, the brutal death of George Floyd while in the custody of police officers in Minneapolis filled the streets of a nation with rage and sorrow. New York was no different. Protesters put the fear of the virus aside and took to the streets by the thousands. Abandoning the safety and comfort of social distance, to demand social change.


MORE CORONAVIRUS COVID-19 COVERAGE


abc7NY Phase Tracker:



COVID-19 Help, Information. Stimulus and Business Updates
UPDATES
New York City
New Jersey
Long Island
Westchester and Hudson Valley
Connecticut

7 On Your Side Investigates: Up to 4,000 coronavirus cases prevented by NYC contact tracers
EMBED More News Videos

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio along with local health experts have repeatedly called contact tracing a key element in preventing another spike of coronavirus in the city.



REOPENING INFORMATION

What's Open, What's Closed
Reopening New York State
Reopening New Jersey
Reopening Connecticut

Total count of NYC, Long Island COVID-19 cases based on patient address
Copyright © 2020 WABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.