As on-site parking lots sit unfilled at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, hundreds of nurses — some of whom treat patients with confirmed cases of coronavirus — are still shuttled to and from work on small crowded buses, sources told WGBH News.
“We're literally on top of each other, we are by no means six feet away from one another,” an employee who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job security told WGBH News. “We are probably at a higher risk being on that shuttle than taking care of patients.”
In a statement, a Brigham and Women’s spokesperson said the hospital has “aggressively expanded both on and offsite parking options for staff” and “increased capacity on the busiest shuttle routes while limiting the number of people who are permitted to ride the shuttles at one time.”
But many nurses said this solution isn’t good enough, according to Joe Markman, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurse’s Association, a union that has been in negotiations with the hospital for two weeks.
“The Brigham is the most acute one that we're learning about right now, because we’ve heard from nurses and we've been sent photos as well about the crowding on the shuttle buses,” Markman said, “But it's something that we're monitoring in hospitals throughout the state.”
Though non-essential hospital staff have moved off-site in response to the coronavirus pandemic, nurses say parking spots are still hard to come by. Those nurses working during the day shift say they might have to wait years to “earn” a spot, and anyone without a designated spot must pay $40 to park for an eight-hour shift. This system means many nurses take the shuttle to and from their cars or from MBTA trains or buses to get home.
“If you had a COVID-19 positive patient, you're sitting on a chair right next to somebody who potentially has never taken care of a COVID-19 patient,” another employee who also asked to not be named said. “We're exposing the whole hospital. And then people who are wondering why Brigham's got one of the highest rates of positive staff cases.”
According to hospital officials, nine employees have tested positive for coronavirus at Brigham and Women’s.
A third employee told WGBH News she couldn’t get on a shuttle due to the 50 percent capacity limit and was 45 minutes late to work.
“And we’re still sitting in front of people and behind people, and there’s only a little distance across the aisle,” they said. “There really isn’t any social distance.”
When asked about these complaints, Brigham and Women’s sent a separate statement describing a parking lottery that will make some spaces available to staff, depending on need.
“We have temporarily freed up onsite parking that is available as a result of the decreased number of patients coming to our campus, as well as provided access to offsite parking we’ve temporarily acquired from our neighbors,” the statement read. “The spaces will be issued on a first-come, first served basis, and preference is given to direct care providers and those who do not currently have parking.”
It's not clear this will solve the problem, according to one of the employees interviewed for this story. It will depend on who gets priority for the newly open spots.
Though the hospital didn’t directly respond to questions about why the nearly-empty parking lots are not being made immediately available, Markman said the issue, as he sees it, is capacity.
“Because there's such a large amount of staff who use the shuttles, if enough staff were to not use the shuttles and drive in, then there wouldn't be capacity parking-wise unless additional parking is made available,” Markman said. “If all those folks were just to drive into the Brigham and park at the parking spaces at the Brigham, that would not solve the problem.”
When asked if the spaces could be temporarily freed up for just medical personnel directly dealing with coronavirus patients, Markman said the hospital is “trying to work out those details.”
Markman said the hospital and the nurse’s union have been in communication with Mayor Marty Walsh’s office and the city’s Department of Health and Human Services. The plan, which Markman said he hopes will go into effect within the next couple of days, will be to free up parking at private businesses nearby to accommodate hospital staff.
“What has been happening so far with the shuttle system isn't working, as the nurses identified,” Markman said. “I think that's why this effort is being amplified right now, to get additional private spaces that nurses can use and not have to use the shuttles.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Walsh confirmed that the Mayor and the HHS have been in contact with businesses near Brigham and Women’s, asking them via letter to join the city’s emergency parking program.
“Just as each of you has supported neighborhoods during those storms, we are hoping to count on your assistance at this time,” one letter, provided to WGBH News by a member of Walsh’s staff, read. “Many hospitals and public health facilities are urgently seeking additional parking for their medical staff.”
Several employees said they hope quick action can be taken, as the pandemic continues to progress.
“For two weeks, they’ve said they’re working on it, and you’ve seen what’s happened in two weeks,” said one. “It's very frustrating to think that they’re putting our health on the line. I'm doing that anyway to take care of patients, but really? to physically get there, I'm putting my life on the line, and it’s very frustrating.”