“Is there a front-line nurse we can talk to?”

That’s the question our association has been fielding from members of the media since the first reported case of COVID-19 in our state. And from Day 1, we have had to say, “No. Hospitals have strict policies prohibiting staff from speaking to the media. We don’t want to risk a member getting fired.”

In truth, we found it hard to believe any hospital would fire a front-line health-care worker for speaking to the media in this time of national emergency, when they are so critically needed.

But that is exactly what happened in Bellingham, where Dr. Ming Lin, a highly-experienced emergency room physician at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, was removed by TeamHealth, a national staffing firm under contract to provide the hospital’s emergency department personnel, after he publicly criticized his hospital’s coronavirus response. He was removed for speaking out against unsafe practices and protocols in his hospital, for the lack of masks and gowns, for the scarcity of testing.

More and more, we’re hearing that our own members have been threatened with losing their jobs if they speak out. Some of our members get daily reminders from administration that speaking to the media is prohibited, others report being pulled aside by managers and warned that talking to the media threatens their jobs.

Hospitals are muzzling nurses and other health-care workers in an attempt to preserve their image. While hospitals give media tours touting their sterling response to the COVID-19 crisis, they are simultaneously silencing the voices of workers on the front lines.

This doesn’t just hurt nurses and other health-care workers who are risking their lives to treat the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 patients. It also puts the public in harm’s way. Without an accurate understanding of the critical safety issues inside our hospitals, public officials won’t have all the information they need to make wise decisions, and our communities will fail to understand how serious this crisis really is.

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What our members are telling us is alarming. Nurses are being asked to reuse surgical masks and face shields, sometimes sharing with others, and potentially spreading the virus. Nurses are being told to store N95 masks in baggies for reuse throughout a 12-hour shift or being forced to work without protective goggles because there are none available. Nurses are being denied reassignment or paid administrative leave despite being over 65 years old and having underlying conditions like asthma or diabetes that place them in a high-risk group. Nurses are getting sick from COVID-19.

Front-line nurses and health-care workers shouldn’t be put in a position where their professional calling is in conflict with their personal safety. But, make no mistake, nurses will be forced to make the difficult decision to quit rather than putting themselves and their loved ones in danger if these concerns are not addressed. It’s already happening, even as we are calling on volunteers and looking at ways to reactivate retired nurses and call nursing students into service.

A basic principle of safety, subscribed to by hospitals and health systems across the nation is, “If you see something, say something.” This concept is foundational to providing safe patient care. Instead, our front-line caregivers are being told to say nothing. They are being told to protect the reputation of the hospital over protecting their patients, their loved ones and themselves.

No health-care worker should face being fired for speaking the truth. It is time to take the muzzles off. We need to hear from nurses and other front-line caregivers. They are the ones who know firsthand what patients need and where our health-care system is falling short in its response to COVID-19.

As front-line caregivers in the state that saw the first COVID-19 deaths, we have experience to share with the rest of the nation, but we can only do so if we’re allowed to speak the truth.