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Guest opinion

Tucson healthcare worker: Congress can't sit idle during 'relentless' COVID outbreak

For my entire adult life, I have worked in health care, including 24 years as a lab technician at El Rio Health Center. I worked on the front lines of the HIV epidemic in the Bay Area in California. I've been through bird flu scares and H1N1 outbreaks. But nothing prepared me for the relentlessness of COVID-19.

Since the start of the outbreak, my coworkers and I have faced personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, and many of us have been exposed to, or even contracted, the virus. We've all struggled with the fear that comes with it.

Initially, social distancing measures in Arizona were slowing the spread of coronavirus, and these precautions prevented us from being completely overwhelmed with patients. But even with those steps, these past months have been grueling and exhausting.

Working in blood and other lab testing means we see 99.9% of the patients that come into the clinic. We are the front line of the front line, and we often have no idea if the patient we are seeing could have COVID-19. Ideally, we would treat every patient as if they were positive, but the lack of PPE has made that level of security impossible. As a result, more than half of our staff were forced to take leave from work because of health conditions; we are down from 38 to 17 technicians. And without us, many of our patients will have nowhere left to turn.

El Rio is a nonprofit community health center. Nearly all of our patients are on Medicaid. Often we are their only resource for care, and when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, we may be the difference between life and death.

Now, as Arizona begins reopening, the state has been reporting record high numbers of new COVID-19 cases. If the virus continues to spread at this rate, my health center and hospitals all over the state will quickly become completely taxed, and we'll run into shortages of hospital beds, equipment and personnel.

To make matters worse, Arizona, as well as nearly every state and locality in the country, is facing budget shortfalls as a result of the economic downturn. Without $1 trillion in aid to states, cities and towns to maintain essential public services, we will see drastic cuts at places like El Rio.

In fact, the aid would fuel an economic recovery according to a bipartisan economic analysis by Glenn Hubbard, Tim Geithner and others, who found that $1 of aid would result in $1.70 in economic activity. To prevent the worst public health crisis in modern history from becoming even more dire, Congress should increase the federal government share of Medicaid costs (the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage or FMAP).

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Even without budget cuts at El Rio, we are facing unprecedented PPE shortages. When I worked in San Francisco during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I remember feeling as if I was dressed for war. Between every patient I saw, I changed my gown, the paper shirt and pants I wore over my scrubs, my gloves, my mask and my goggles. Everything. And HIV is much harder to transmit than the coronavirus.

Today, I often have no choice about whether I can change my PPE or not. It puts my safety, my terminally ill partner's safety, and my patients' safety at risk. We cannot afford to face additional cuts and further shortages of PPE, ventilators and beds. My work with HIV patients was scary, but at least we had a plan and the equipment we needed to do our jobs.

I'd love for one of the politicians refusing to provide additional funding for essential public services to come work with me for a day. 

I've never felt less safe working in health care than I do today. We know in our work there is always a risk, but there is no need for it to be this unsafe.

Many of the people I work with have no choice but to keep their jobs as they are the sole breadwinner for their household or a single parent. However, if they could leave, I know many would—not because they don't love being caregivers and doing such important work, but because they are mentally drained and terrified that they are putting their loved ones at risk.

Seeing it firsthand, it's clear to me that COVID-19 has exposed what years of political grandstanding, underfunding and partisan choices have done to our health care system: we were unprepared.

If we are going to get through this public health crisis, our lawmakers in Congress, especially in the Senate, cannot stand idly by and watch as the outbreak and economic impact gets worse. They must take action to increase federal funding for Medicaid immediately and give aid to states and local governments to prevent additional cuts to critical public services.

John Duran is a medical lab specialist at El Rio Community Health Center and chair of AFSCME Local 449’s chapter there.

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John Duran