BY SHERI WILLIAMS
Nurses in Sacramento and across the country turned out in July for a national day of action to demand that healthcare employers prioritize patient safety and workplace protections.
Tens of thousands of union registered nurses are in the process of bargaining contracts that govern safe patient care conditions and their own workplace safety, issues that became central in the past year as the pandemic exposed deficiencies. Nurses are demanding new protections in contracts because employers have proven during the pandemic that they will con-tinue to prioritize their bottom line over occupational and public health and safety, National Nurses United said in a statement. To date, more than 400 RNs have died of COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the failures of our so-called healthcare system and revealed more clearly than ev-er before that our employers put profits above patients’ and nurses’ health and safety,” said NNU President Deborah Burger, RN. “Nurses across the country are standing up and demanding critical change. Let’s be clear that with the num-ber of COVID cases going back up in some areas of the country, and more contagious and deadly variants spreading, the pandemic is not over. Our employers must act today to address serious issues in our facilities.”
Among the protections nurses are demanding is access to optimal personal protective equipment (PPE), as many nurses still report being told to use the same N95 respirator for an entire shift or for multiple shifts, or not being given an N95 respirator at all. They are also demanding safe staffing levels, and other measures to ensure patient safety during COVID-19.
Nurses are also insisting their employers help protect their patients against racial health disparities that mostly harm their Black, indigenous, and patients of color by expanding and preserving health care services, not shrinking, eliminat-ing, and consolidating them to maximize profit, the union said.
“From the start of the pandemic, nurses have called on the hospitals to make appropriate plans, to increase staffing and increase training, to put in place clear infection control protocols, and to observe the precautionary principle by using the highest level of protections when dealing with a novel virus,” said Burger. “The hospitals did not comply, and the conse-quences have been deadly. Nurses are standing up… and using our collective voices to demand that our employers put patients first.”
In California, nurses are also fighting to raise awareness about the dangers of the Delta variant, which is highly conta-gious and quickly spreading through unvaccinated communities. Once again, hospitals are filling to capacity in some places as unvaccinated people fall ill. California nurses are urging all Californians, even those who are vaccinated, to wear masks and take precautions. Though vaccinated people are unlikely to fall seriously ill from the Delta variant, there have been cases of breakthrough infections. The danger of these infections is that they could allow the virus to mutate to a vari-ant that is resistant to the vaccines—making it essential that everyone do their part to prevent its spread until enough peo-ple are vaccinated to stop it.
“Please, please just keep your masks on when you are indoors and in crowds,” said Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN and a president of California Nurses Association. “It’s such a simple but effective way of preventing COVID-19. This pandemic is not over. We still have upwards of 10,000 new infections and hundreds of deaths per day. Not even half the U.S. popu-lation is fully vaccinated. And some of the new variants are highly contagious and incredibly troubling. Please keep on masking to protect yourselves and your families.”
Triunfo-Cortez noted that the lack of infection control restrictions will endanger our most vulnerable Californians – in-cluding all kids under 12, the immunocompromised, and essential workers who tend to be disproportionately people of color. For example, according to data from the California Department of Public Health, the seven-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases among children aged 0 to 17 increased 21 percent over the last week, a very worrying trend.
CNA has long advocated for an approach to controlling COVID-19 that follows the precautionary principle, which says it’s best to take the safer route even before we know for sure whether something is harmful or not.
CNA asserts that vaccination is a critically important part—but only one part— of a comprehensive infection control public health program. Because no vaccine is 100 percent effective and there are still many unknowns about the COVID-19 vaccines, including how long any immunity lasts, CNA advocates for practicing multiple measures of infection control as the safest and most effective.
Imagine each measure like a slice of Swiss cheese: One slice on its own has holes that let the virus through, but multiple slices stacked together plug those holes and will stop the virus, the union said in a statement. Masking, distancing outside of your household, testing, contact tracing, ventilation and air filtration, good hygiene, vaccines, and more are all indi-vidual slices of cheese.