Yvonne Evans is a registered nurse at John Dingell VA Medical Center (VAMC) in Detroit, Michigan. A few weeks ago, she was not feeling well and was experiencing a shortness of breath. Her body temperature read 99.
When she went to work and reported the symptoms to the Covid-19 screening tent prior to her shift, they told her to put a mask on and go back to work. Yvonne told them that she was at high risk of contracting the novel coronavirus because of her age – 63 – and her asthma, which had put her in the hospital weeks before. They told her if her symptoms got worse, she needed to go to the nearest emergency room. But for now? She had to return to work.
That was a Thursday. Over the weekend, she got worse. By Monday, she called her supervisor and said she couldn’t come in. Her temperature was now over 102, almost 103. She needed to see a doctor right away.
She called the health department in her county, which referred her to the urgent care in her area. She called them and explained that she was a first responder and worked at a hospital with multiple patients and visitors.
They tested her for the flu and told her right away it was negative. Then they swabbed her for the coronavirus and called her the next day to report that she had contracted the virus. She was told to quarantine for 15 days and go to the ER if it got worse.
Yvonne runs the surgery podiatry clinic at the VAMC in Detroit. She has three nurses working under her and three doctors she works with. With her positive diagnosis, she realized that all of them, and possibly patients, had been exposed when VA management told her to report back to work despite her symptoms.
A doctor she works with became sick a few days after Yvonne reported her symptoms, so they decided to close the clinic. She could have infected him, or he could have infected her. Or she could have contracted the virus from someone else in the hospital. They don’t know. But Yvonne was upset that management did not listen to her when she told them she had the symptoms.
“You told us ‘Don’t report to work if we had a sign of symptoms.’ I’d come to you and I told you I had the sign of symptoms and you basically ignored it,” said Yvonne, the national fair practice coordinator for AFGE’s District 7 and recording secretary for AFGE Local 933.
But the absurdity didn’t end there.
She called her hospital and told them the staff she worked with needed to self-quarantine because they had all been exposed to her. The upper-level management, however, insisted that if her coworkers didn’t show signs of symptoms, they still needed to report to work. Now that her clinic had been closed, her coworkers were sent to help with other units in the hospital. Now everyone, including veterans, are at risk since all the clinics are in the same open area.
“Management knows that they work with me. They know that I have been diagnosed. And now they’re training them to do patient care like tube feeding,” she said.
The VA still didn’t seem to understand the severity of the situation. Yvonne said they told her to go back to work if she doesn’t have a fever for three days after the 15-day quarantine. They didn’t ask her to go see a doctor first to make sure she’s free of the virus, but that’s what she plans to do on her own. She doesn’t want to infect others since there are people who’ve tested positive but don’t show any symptoms.
Yvonne has been a registered nurse for 30 years, and she has never seen anything like this. She is worried about her health – she knows her lung will be scarred because of the virus – but she’s more concerned about the veterans she serves.
“I don’t want to be sick. I want to be out there doing all that I can to help my patients. That’s the pledge I took 30 years ago,” she explained. “But it bothers me even more when I think that these people who I’m giving my life for have been at risk because of management’s callous disregard of their health and safety. I don’t take that lightly. I’m passionate about that. I chose nursing. I love what I do. I love taking care of my vets. But I’ll be damned if I let anybody hurt them. It’s wrong. It’s just wrong.”