As the coronavirus continues to ravage the world, the case and death rate in the United States continues to climb with 1.4 million confirmed cases and over 83,000 deaths as of May 12. Despite the continuing increase in cases and deaths, many states are now re-opening businesses with varying degrees of restrictions in place, but public health officials warn that the relaxation of social distancing and stay-at-home orders will likely lead to a new wave of infections and death.
National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union of registered nurses in the United States, marked this year’s week honoring nurses (May 6-12) with a series of protest actions demanding optimal COVID-19 personal protective equipment for nurses and all frontline health care workers. The union is also calling for widespread testing that the Trump regime promised but never delivered. Public health experts maintain that an exponential increase in testing and contact tracing will be necessary to begin a safe phased reopening of the economy.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Deborah Berger, co-president of National Nurses United, who discusses the union’s demands for adequate protections for nurses and assesses federal and state policies addressing the coronavirus pandemic.
DEBORAH BERGER: We have been lobbying the federal and state government. We’ve had numerous actions, job actions and we’ve also had most recently — actions at the White House to highlight the fact that despite our work in the last three months to get the equipment that we need. We’re still having difficulty because our employers are saying that we have the protections we need and now they’re even recommending more egregious solutions to the lack of PPE by saying that it’s OK to reuse those masks. It’s OK to downgrade the safety precautions that the CDC has made. So there’s a number of issues that we’re still dealing with and we’re actually working with other community groups and supporters through the (website) ProtectNurses.org to send petitions to the American Hospital Association and to President Trump to increase the use of the Defense Production Act for all the necessary equipment we need, including the N95 masks.
SCOTT HARRIS: How would you assess the federal government’s performance here? Given that a lot of what the Trump administration has been doing has been very obviously chaotic in many cases, irrational. There have been certainly instances of contradictory statements coming out less than 24 hours apart. Sometimes the equipment is not forthcoming despite assurances by President Trump early on two months ago that everyone who wants a test can get a test. Comment on some of the most important problems that you see in terms of coordination from the federal government.
DEBORAH BERGER: If I was going to grade the Trump administration on their performance and handling of this epidemic, I would have to give it a failing grade. And in fact, I would send them back another grade so that they couldn’t move forward because they really are undermining the role of what a proper government response should be. There’s continual, continual happy talk about the role that the VA has and how well they’re doing. They talk about how well the CDC is doing, how well the COVID-19 task force is doing. Yet, when you actually look at the results that are the underpinnings for examining any response and giving it an honest grade, you have to say that they have missed the boat. We still don’t have adequate testing for people that desperately need tests. They have actually stopped testing in some states and said that they’re opening and don’t need them.
We still do not have the adequate PPE that we need despite the fact that we are now three months into this pandemic and have not gotten the equipment that we need. There is less than adequate support and clear communication about how this pandemic should be treated and the CDC itself — which is supposed to be an independent organization within the government giving honest recommendations — is still heavily lobbied by the hospital industry to weaken worker protections and that’s probably the most egregious part of this. In Canada. In Canada, there has not been one nurse death as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, not one. In the United States, we now have over a hundred. And if we had the proper protections we needed, there would not be any death because we would be completely prepared to do the job without being exposed to this deadly virus.
SCOTT HARRIS: What should the American people be demanding of the government and their state governments right now in terms of addressing this pandemic, which is far from over?
DEBORAH BERGER: So what people should be demanding is that they follow the science and not the pocketbook of the employers or the federal government. They can go to ProtectNurses.org and sign our petitions so that they can actually help protect nurses. Because if you don’t protect nurses, we can’t protect our patients and then continue to do really good programming like this, where you actually have the time to talk to nurses and other healthcare workers that are on the front lines at great sacrifice to their health and their family’s health to keep you safe.