Virus Outbreak Connecticut

Nurses and their supporters hold signs in the rain as they began a two-day strike Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, outside the William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, Conn. More than 400 nurses at the Connecticut hospital began the strike over what union leaders called low wages and struggle to get enough personal protective equipment. The strike comes amid a breakdown in contract talks between the nurses' union and hospital management, as well as rising coronavirus cases in Norwich and other eastern Connecticut communities. The hospital is operated by Hartford HealthCare. (John Shishmanian/The Bulletin via AP)

More than 400 nurses at a Connecticut hospital began a two-day strike Tuesday over what union leaders called low wages and struggles to get enough personal protective equipment.

Dozens of nurses hit the picket line outside the William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich in rainy weather and held signs saying “Nurses on strike for unfair labor practice” and “PPE over profits.”

The strike comes amid a breakdown in contract talks between the nurses’ union and hospital management, as well as rising coronavirus cases in Norwich and other eastern Connecticut communities. The hospital is operated by Hartford HealthCare. Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont said he’s been in communication with both the union and hospital leaders.

“I’m doing everything I can to remind both parties how important it is we have Backus Hospital going out there ... right where the pandemic looks like it’s probably flaring up a little bit,” he said, adding that there should be no issues with nurses obtaining proper personal protective equipment, given the stockpiles that have been amassed. “I’m very hopeful that they’re getting closer to the finish line. Keep those conversations going. We don’t want to wait another day.”

Statewide, the infection rate was 2.4% as of Tuesday, the highest it has been since June. It has been around 7% in Norwich in recent days. The number of people hospitalized statewide climbed by 17 since Monday to 172, and 25 were in New London County, where Backus is located. In contrast, there were 2,000 daily hospitalizations statewide in the earlier days of the pandemic.

“It’s not unexpected, but it’s incredibly unnerving and a little exhausting,” Lamont said of the state’s slowly increasing infection rate.

But he said the state has been bringing in testing to hot spots like Norwich and New London and urging residents to remain vigilant and continue social distancing and mask-wearing. He noted how that worked to bring the rate down in Danbury, where there was a recent uptick in cases.

The Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Local 5149, and hospital management have been in contract negotiations since June. Unionized nurses voted to authorize a strike last month.

Donna Handley, president of Backus and Windham hospitals, said in a statement that Backus will remain open and called the strike “heartbreaking.” She said nurses have been offered “significant” wage increases — 12.5% over three years — along with additional paid time off and a 2% decrease in health care premiums.

“The hospital has made every effort to avoid a strike,” said Handley, who is a nurse herself. “We are prepared to find common ground, and we want to reach agreement on a fair contract. The union, unfortunately, is prepared to strike, causing an unprecedented degree of disruption during an unprecedented health crisis.”

State Department of Public Health officials said Tuesday that they would be monitoring patient care, staffing levels and supply levels during the strike. The agency also said it was verifying the training of the replacement nurses hired by the hospital.

Backus nurses say they’re paid less than those at other area hospitals, while Backus is one of the most profitable hospitals in the state. They also have not had sufficient personal protective equipment during the pandemic and have had to repeatedly reuse gear including N95 masks, Sherri Dayton, a nurse and president of the Backus Federation of Nurses, AFT Local 5149, told The Associated Press earlier this month.

“You use it until it’s soiled or compromised and they really need to change the policy to, you really don’t need to use it longer than eight hours,” she said about N95 masks.

She said in recent months, 11 staff on one floor of Backus were infected with the coronavirus by a patient from a local nursing home, three more employees in the critical care unit were infected and another worker tested positive after caring for a patient in the emergency room.

“A lot of nurses are scared,” Dayton said, “and the reason for that is, is because when they test positive, we get blamed by the hospital.”

Southeastern Connecticut had a relatively low infection rate during the early months of the pandemic. But in recent weeks, there’s been an uptick in cases. On Monday, state and local officials including Gov. Ned Lamont urged residents of the region to get tested for COVID-19 and be careful around friends, family members and co-workers.

During a rally amid the picketing Tuesday, Democratic Congressman Joe Courtney blamed Backus and Hartford HealthCare management for the contract impasse, which he called stunning amid a pandemic, the Norwich Bulletin reported.

“That makes no sense and the leadership of this institution just totally cut the legs out from the work (Lamont) was doing here yesterday,” he told the crowd. “This is the time we should be pulling together.”

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