For two years, workers across the U.S. have made enormous sacrifices as government officials continuously put corporate economic interests above the general welfare and public good. Health care and other workers have fought back in the face of government malfeasance and for-profit exploitation. Workers have resisted through hundreds, if not thousands, of spontaneous and organized walkouts and strikes to protest unsafe working conditions.
Health care workers are acutely aware of how the COVID-19 pandemic crisis in the U.S. has pushed hospital systems to the breaking point. Federal agencies, which were set up to regulate safety standards and provide guidance based on scientific evidence, have failed to protect these essential workers from the capitalist, profit-driven health care model.
OSHA, do your job!
National Nurses United (NNU) and a coalition of other labor unions filed a lawsuit Jan. 5 to force the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to do its job in protecting workers during the pandemic. (tinyurl.com/y3eds6n7) OSHA failed its mandate to keep workers safe on the job, when the agency withdrew its emergency temporary standard (ETS) specific to hospital workers during the pandemic in December 2021. In fact, only after pressure from NNU did OSHA finally issue the ETS in June 2021.
The ETS requirements were a comprehensive list of measures to protect workers, including effective personal protective equipment, adequate ventilation, and other procedures geared to limiting viral transmission. The list guaranteed basic health care workers’ rights such as paid sick time, time off to get the vaccine and the option for contagious workers to work remotely if possible or receive paid time off.
The lawsuit against OSHA calls for the retention and enforcement of the agency’s emergency temporary standard and the adoption of a permanent standard for health care occupational exposure to COVID-19 within 30 days. In addition to the NNU, the lawsuit coalition includes the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, the New York State Nurses Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO. The lawsuit targets the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and OSHA’s Assistant Secretary of Labor Douglas L. Parker.
Pandemic runs wild
In the early days of the pandemic, government and hospital leaders handed out platitudes and pizza parties instead of proper PPE. No significant effective contact-tracing system was ever implemented. Testing was hard to come by and remains so today.
Over 3,600 health care workers died from COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic.
Once the vaccine provided some relief, social restrictions eased last summer; then schools opened in September, and President Joe Biden urged everyone to get back to work. However, the percentage of the population protected was never enough to offset the burden placed on workers still caring for critically ill COVID-19 patients.
When the delta variant spread through the country, there was legitimate concern that the vaccine would not be enough protection. Booster doses bought a few more months of partial immunity because the Biden administration could not afford the economy to backslide. Right-wing misinformation saw store clerks, flight attendants and restaurant workers struggling to get customers to wear masks indoors.
And then omicron hit.
The present-day situation is no less dire than in the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic. The omicron variant is hypertransmissible. It is responsible for more than 95% of current COVID-19 cases nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. hit a record of nearly 1.1 million new infections for one day on Jan. 3, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Case counts and deaths due to COVID-19 are as high or higher than two years ago in many states. “Omicron is causing a surge unlike anything we’ve seen, and at this rate our hospitals will fill up,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear tweeted Jan. 4. According to Becker’s Hospital Review, 16 states report critical staffing shortages at 25% of hospitals in their state, with 21 additional states expecting to be at that level soon.
Profits over people
Now the CDC has issued new recommendations that trim the isolation period for asymptomatic health care workers with COVID-19 and no longer require exposed vaccinated workers to quarantine — a direct violation of standard infection control protocol.
Especially troubling is CDC’s caveat that hospitals can use staffing shortages to justify limiting quarantine times even further. Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, president of NNU, commented in Becker’s Hospital Review: “Weakening COVID-19 guidance now, in the face of what could be the most devastating COVID-19 surge yet, will only result in further transmission, illness and death.” (tinyurl.com/5t495n8h)
What could be the motivation for these government agencies to rescind much needed safety guidelines when the omicron surge is making life and work so dangerous?
Triunfo-Cortez pointed out that employers’ arguments for reducing isolation time are focused on maintaining business operations and profits, “without regard for science or the health of employees and the public.”
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a Jan. 9 interview on Fox News that the easing of restrictions was based on “ever-evolving science.” However, it has been widely reported that the CDC was pressured to change the guidelines by Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian to prevent a negative impact to that airline’s operations. Perhaps Dr. Walensky should indicate that she is referring to economic and not biological science, since the corporate bottom line is what is driving the CDC policy change.
We cannot rely on the CDC to steer us on a safe course out of the pandemic.
Worker resistance the answer
As COVID-19 cases in children have risen dramatically in this latest surge — with Black and Brown children at higher risk — some teachers’ unions are mobilizing to try to keep themselves and their students safe.
Pediatric hospitals are canceling elective procedures and adding critical care beds to accommodate children who become severely ill with COVID-19 or its long-term consequences. In January, the CDC reported alarming evidence that a sizable percentage of children under 18 years of age stricken with COVID-19 will develop diabetes.
Despite these troubling developments, many schools, especially in big cities, are not reverting back to remote learning. The Chicago Teachers Union voted Jan. 4 to shift to remote instruction without the district’s approval. As of Jan. 10, the CTU was still in walkout and encouraging members to refuse in-person teaching, despite extra pay being dangled as “incentive.” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, taking a hard line against the remote option, slammed the CTU.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the city’s health department are both promoting more lax guidelines for in-person learning, falling in line with the CDC recommendations. But claims that remote learning is the cause of extreme stress for students seems like a poor excuse to put children, teachers and parents at risk for a potentially life-threatening disease.
The stress on workers from the pandemic is real. But sending children back to classrooms amid a pandemic surge seems like another capitalist ploy to keep the profits up — at whatever the cost to workers and their families.
Marie Kelly, an RN with 45 years experience, is an at-large member of National Nurses United.