Nurses demand states close again until COVID-19 protection, testing, tracking measures in place
National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union of registered nurses in America, announced today that areas of the country which have loosened shelter-in-place measures must close again and work harder, along with the federal government, to contain COVID-19 and protect public health. Nurses say the recent all-time high in positive cases and hospitalizations in many locations across the country underscores their demand.
“Registered nurses have been sounding the alarm on COVID-19 since January, calling on the government and our employers to take strong steps to protect our patients, our colleagues, our families, and our communities. That was six months ago, and not enough has been done,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN. “Yet, we have seen the country reopen as if everything was resolved, and this recent explosion in cases just goes to show that was definitely not the case.”
National Nurses United had already released a statement on April 28, warning it was not safe to reopen, and a second statement on June 2 in solidarity with unions representing 230,000 nurses, saying the same. Nurses had called on—and are still calling on—the government and employers to prioritize public health by meeting the following criteria before reopening can happen safely:
- Nurses and other health care workers must have the optimal personal protective equipment (PPE) they need, including powered air-purifying respirators, coveralls that incorporate head coverings and shoe coverings, and gloves. Results from an NNU survey of the nation’s nurses conducted from April 10 through June 24, 2020 show that 85 percent of nurses are still being asked to reuse PPE, although there is no scientifically proven way to do that safely.
“COVID-19 patients end up in the hospital, where nurses and health care workers are still—in June—being told to reuse PPE until it is misshapen and falling apart. Why on earth would it be okay to lift shelter-in-place restrictions and therefore increase positive cases without doing anything to get PPE into our hands?” said Castillo. “Nurses and health care workers play such a critical role in helping stop the spread of this virus, but only if we ourselves are protected on the front lines.”
- President Trump must activate the Defense Production Act (DPA) to order the mass production of PPE. To effectively protect patients and the public, nurses and health care workers need to use PPE as it was intended. For N95 respirators and other equipment, that means single use only. Since this pandemic began, President Trump has had the power to ensure enough PPE is available to use safely by ordering the mass production of PPE. He hasn’t done so, and nurses demand the DPA is fully activated immediately.
- Health care capacity must be expanded, and people must be able to get treatment they need if they contract COVID-19— at no cost. Any vaccine developed with U.S. taxpayer dollars must also be provided to the U.S. public for free when needed.
- CDC, WHO, OSHA guidelines and standards must be strengthened. The risk for airborne transmission of the virus is increasingly documented. Nurses demand that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization strengthen their guidelines accordingly. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must also pass an emergency temporary standard for infectious diseases to mandate that health care employers provide protections needed for COVID-19.
- Public health infrastructure must be strengthened to include sufficient staffing, supplies, and space for robust surveillance, testing, case isolation, and contact tracing to ensure that the virus is effectively contained. The same April 10 to June 24 survey mentioned above showed that 80 percent of nurses had still not been tested for COVID-19.
- Health care capacity and preparedness must focus on human need, not profit. This pandemic has exposed underlying problems in our society, and has illuminated the damage done by economic policies that benefit our for-profit health care system, instead of human beings. Nurses have seen health care services for communities of color shuttered in recent months, as wealthy hospital corporations use COVID-19 as an excuse to close less profitable services. Nurses say the health care needs of all patients must be a priority before states can reopen.
- Basic human needs must be met. People in America must have enhanced unemployment benefits and paid sick time and family leave; food security; housing; health care; and other social supports for people who are unemployed or unable to work due to illness or quarantine and isolation measures. Nurses say this is especially critical for African American and in many areas Latino patients, who have died of COVID-19 in numbers as high as three to four times the rate of whites, and have lost jobs in greater percentages since March.
Nurses reiterate that now is a time to reenvision how our economy is organized. Too many federal, state, and local leaders have prioritized businesses’ profits over the public’s health in their rush to reopen at all costs and without proper preparation, say nurses, putting many workers, especially workers of color, at high risk of contracting COVID-19.
Castillo emphasizes that, “Our federal and state governments can’t just say, ‘The country is open again!’ without fully addressing the root of the problem. The virus is still out there. Opening back up—as if we have addressed it, without taking the clear steps nurses have outlined for months to actually mitigate its spread—will only continue to sicken and kill our patients.”