Nurses condemn Biden administration for ripping away protections from health care workers, patients
National Nurses United (NNU) today condemned the Biden administration's latest moves to rip away protections from health care workers and the public, saying the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) weakening Covid isolation guidelines and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announcing that it will rescind critical Covid protections for health care workers—right when the Omicron variant is exploding across the country during a winter surge–puts countless lives at risk.
“Nurses have fought since day one of this pandemic for protections based on science and the precautionary principle,” said NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN. “Our demands included optimal isolation times to prevent further Covid spread and an enforceable OSHA Covid health care industry standard to mandate our profit-driven employers, who would never do it on their own, give us optimal protections at work. Nurses applauded the Biden administration when OSHA issued an emergency temporary Covid standard (ETS) in June of 2021, and now we are dumbfounded and enraged that OSHA is rescinding those protections at the same time that the CDC is weakening isolation guidelines to seven days for health care workers and even less time ‘if there are staffing shortages.’”
“OSHA’s assertion that it ‘intends to work expeditiously to issue a final standard that will protect health care workers from COVID-19 hazards’ is welcome but wholly insufficient until such a standard is actually promulgated and has the force of law,” Triunfo-Cortez continued. “The Department of Labor has had more than six months to make this happen, and yet the administration will be leaving nurses and other health care workers defenseless if the ETS is rescinded. Despite President Biden’s promises that he would protect nurses, we can see in his administration’s actions this week that those were just empty words.”
On Dec. 22, NNU sent a letter to the CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, signed by Triunfo-Cortez, urging the agency to “maintain current guidance regarding isolation after a positive SARS-CoV-2 test for health care workers, other frontline workers, and the general public.” The following day, the CDC shortened the isolation period for nurses and other workers who have tested positive for Covid-19 from 10 to seven days and announced exposed vaccinated and boosted health care workers are no longer required to quarantine. On Dec. 27, the agency announced new guidelines for the general public, reducing isolation times to as few as five days.
While the CDC claims the “change is motivated by science,” nurses emphasize that the weakened isolation guidelines are motivated by the employers wanting workers back on the clock fast, regardless of whether it’s safe, to maximize their profits.
“Let’s be clear: This is about what’s good for business, not what’s good for public health,” said Triunfo-Cortez. “Our employers claim there is a ‘nursing shortage,’ and that’s why they must flout optimal isolation times, but we know there are plenty of registered nurses in this country. There is only a shortage of nurses willing to work in the unsafe conditions created by hospital employers and this government’s refusal to impose lifesaving standards. So this is a vicious cycle where weakening protections just drives more nurses away from their jobs.”
Adding insult to injury, say nurses, on Dec. 27, OSHA announced its plan to rescind a hard-won emergency temporary standard (ETS)—adopted in June to mandate health care worker protections—with no permanent standard in place. The ETS has imposed mandatory requirements for health care employers on infection control protections, with penalties for those who violate those requirements. Registered nurses noted that this was the first OSHA emergency temporary standard since 1983, and it was promulgated thanks to unrelenting union nurse advocacy over the extensive opposition of the hospital industry and other corporate interests.
“It is unconscionable that OSHA would not make the Covid-19 health care ETS permanent,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN. “Without a permanent standard, we will see more preventable transmission of the virus, more hospitalizations, and more deaths from Covid-19. It is absolutely essential that our frontline health care workers have these lifesaving protections to do their jobs safely so they can continue to care for patients, especially when we are now facing Delta and Omicron variants as well as flu season.”
Nurses demand that OSHA adopt a permanent standard without delay, given the ongoing pandemic that puts nurses and healthcare workers in grave danger.
To draw attention to the failure of the federal government and employers to protect patients, nurses, and other health care and frontline workers, National Nurses United is holding a national day of action on Jan. 13. RNs emphasize that optimal protections save lives. As of Dec. 22, 476 RNs have died of Covid-19, among 4,702 health care worker deaths overall, according to NNU tracking data. To date, more than 1 million U.S. health care workers have been infected.
“Nurses across the country will be standing up for change on Jan. 13, and we call on our communities to stand with us,” said Triunfo-Cortez. “Nurses have fought every single day of this pandemic for strong protections, and we are not going to stand by while the federal government and our employers weaken those protections by the day. We are not going backward now.”
National Nurses United is the largest union and professional organization of registered nurses in the United States, with more than 175,000 members nationwide.