A new WBUR poll of over 400 Massachusetts nurses finds that only about half say their workplace has enough personal protective gear. Many feel constantly or most of the time that they're in danger of being infected by the coronavirus at work.
And yet, morale remains strong.
Just over 60% of the nurses surveyed say they feel they’re in personal danger of catching the coronavirus at work at least some of the time, and nearly one in five feels that way constantly, according to the WBUR/MassINC poll (topline, crosstabs).
"I feel like it’s a lot of fear and anxiety," says ICU nurse Claudia Tavares, who works in a Boston hospital where she says there is enough personal protective gear, but "It’s not perfect. We don’t have the quantity that we can be wasteful. We have enough quantity that you have to preserve it."
About half of the nurses surveyed say their workplace has enough personal protective equipment for nurses caring for COVID-19 patients. But 44% say it does not.
Donna Kelly-Williams, the president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association says that split reflects dramatic differences among the state’s hospitals, and she says, some hospitals lack supplies that nurses need.
"You look around at nurses that are on the front lines," she says. "They are Saran-Wrapping face shields, they are wearing shower curtains to protect their heads because there are not enough scrub caps."
One nurse says concern about protective gear may be even higher than the poll found because some nurses may be scared to speak out.
"Some hospitals are saying, too, that you can’t go into the media and complain about no PPE, or you may lose your job," she said.
The nurse asked not to be identified because she doesn’t have her employer’s permission to speak.
The WBUR/MassINC poll was conducted last Thursday through Sunday and has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points. It found that 15% of the nurses surveyed had experienced symptoms that could have been from the coronavirus, and of those, the majority got tested.
Overall, just 3% of nurses said they had tested positive — all of them nurses who work in direct contact with COVID-19 patients.
MassINC pollster Steve Koczela says he was struck by how stalwart the state’s nurses remain.
"They’re going through some really, really difficult times," he says, "really difficult stuff in terms of just their working conditions, and what they’re being asked to do. And the morale they’re maintaining through it I think is quite remarkable."
Forty percent describe their morale as high or somewhat high, and another 38% describe their morale as moderate. That’s despite their concerns about equipment, infection risks and even the longer hours that many who care for COVID-19 patients report they’re working.
Koczela says the responses remind him of his military service in Iraq, "in the sense that you know what you need to do, you know what your job is, you know what your mission is, and you don’t have the stuff you need. And you are in personal danger, and your friends are in personal danger, but it’s your job, and you do it anyway."
In a half-dozen follow-up interviews, nurses described an unwavering commitment to helping patients. One big question, though, is how long morale can remain relatively strong as the weeks roll on.
"People are very tired — people who are working in COVID," says nurse Tavares, adding that some of her colleagues sound simply exhausted.
Normally, really hard days with heartbreaking patients happen only occasionally, she says, but "some of them are dealing with that every single day. I don’t know what we’re going to do if this doesn’t improve soon, because I can’t see people doing it month after month after month."
There needs to be a long-term plan to support the staff, she says, so people don’t burn out.
The poll found that a strong majority of nurses do have confidence in the leaders who would make that plan — at least, at the hospital and the state level.
This segment aired on May 7, 2020.