Largest U.S. Nurses Union Opposes CDC’s Relaxation of COVID Mask, Distancing Guidelines

Interview with Rocelyn de Leon-Minch, industrial hygienist with the National Nurses United union, conducted by Scott Harris

As coronavirus cases and deaths across the U.S. declined amid coast-to-coast vaccination efforts, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued new guidelines on May 13 that fully-vaccinated Americans could participate in most indoor activities without wearing a mask. However, the CDC’s guidelines still call for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings such as buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.

The CDC announcement was made as the seven-day average of daily COVID cases in the U.S. was over 36,000, compared with more than 71,000 in mid-April. The seven-day average of U.S. COVID deaths was 618 per day, down 9 percent from a week before according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Rocelyn de Leon-Minch, an industrial hygienist with the National Nurses United, the nation’s largest registered nurses union. Here, she explains why her union is opposed to the CDC’s new guidelines, based on what they believe is incomplete data, posing a danger to public health, while supporting a robust public health program that uses multiple measures to control the spread of the coronavirus.

ROCELYN DE LEON-MINCH: CDC’s latest guidance that says vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks, avoid crowds, get tested or isolate after an exposure to COVID-19 unless they develop symptoms was based on incomplete data. NNU has posted a scientific brief. We also held a press conference explaining the science that show that multiple measures are still needed to curb the current pandemic. And also it was quite surprising because, well, first of all, we know that no vaccine is 100 percent bullet-proof, right? And while vaccines are certainly an important public health tool, right? They are not enough by itself to combat COVID-19. And the latest data based on the CDC, only 39 percent of the U.S. population have been fully vaccinated, which means that there are still a lot of people who are not yet vaccinated — children under 12 cannot get vaccinated right now, babies can’t get vaccinated right now. And we also don’t know whether or how much these COVID vaccines protect those who are immunocompromised. So the CDC guidance places the vulnerable people like children, like babies, like immunocompromised individuals at greater risk for COVID-19.

And, you know, we’re still in a pandemic and this is, you know, the deadliest pandemic that we’ve seen in a century. And there is still a continued high number of COVID cases across the country. More than, you know, 32,000 new infections are recorded every single day. And according to the CDC’s data, nearly 90 percent of counties have moderate, substantial or high transmission. And that’s a really big number. You know, it’s important to note that while it’s certainly lower COVID cases that we’ve had when you compare it to, you know, since January, which is good, I hope it keeps going down as we increase vaccinations.

But I think it’s important to also note that not only are the COVID cases still very high — reported every single day — but there’s also been a decline in weekly testing during the past four months, 33 percent reduction in weekly testing, which really creates blind spots for us to effectively respond to the pandemic.

SCOTT HARRIS: Rocelyn, I wondered if you would address the issue of motivation here. Was it economics, politics, or was it designed to put more pressure on people across the country to get a vaccine?

ROCELYN DE LEON-MINCH: I don’t know if perhaps this was their way of trying to show people who are kind of on the fence about getting vaccinated to try and encourage them and say, this is how great the vaccines are. You know, they’re working really well. And so if you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask.

To answer your question, I think relying on the faulty science, the science that they cited are not yet peer reviewed. There’s a conflict of interest from some of them. Relying on that kind of science will not increase vaccination rates, but providing extensive public education and making vaccines truly accessible for working people and underserved communities will.

To go back to my point of only 39 percent of the U.S. population have been fully vaccinated, when you break that down and look at the disparities among vaccinated people, right? You know, black and Latinx and other people of color have been vaccinated at much lower rates compared to white people. And compared to the proportion of the population, the CDC’s guidance really increases essential workers’ exposure to the virus. And we know that most essential workers are people of color who have been
disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, right? While at the same time, there are disparities in who’s been vaccinated.

For more information, visit National Nurses United at nationalnursesunited.org.

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