Nurses Call on Senate to Protect Health Care Workers As Congress Spars Over Coronavirus Aid

July 22, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
National Nurses United says that more than 160 U.S. nurses have died from COVID-19 since the coronavirus pandemic broke out earlier this year. (Photo by Gaspard Le Dem)

WASHINGTON — Nurses from National Nurses United gathered at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday morning to honor the lives of fellow health care workers who have died from the coronavirus, and to urge Congress to pass legislation to protect them on the job.

In 90+-degree heat, they stood around pairs of empty white shoes, taking turns reading the names of the more than 160 U.S. nurses who have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic broke out.

Stephanie Sims, a nurse at Medstar Washington Hospital Center, said her hospital has faced an ongoing shortage of basic protective equipment, and that many nurses have fallen sick from the virus. 

Hospital workers at Medstar have been forced to reuse N-95 respirators after decontaminating them, a practice that the CDC says should only be used as a last resort. 

“Walking into the unknown each shift, it’s just a lot of unnecessary stress,” said Sims, who works in Medstar’s neonatal intensive care unit. “It’s already a stressful job caring for patients, and even more stressful walking into an environment where the PPE is not effective.”

Lawmakers returned to Washington this week for fresh negotiations on a new coronavirus stimulus package that could include additional funding and protections for health care workers. 

Back in May, the House passed the Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, a $3 trillion piece of legislation known as the HEROES Act. 

The 1800-page document includes provisions that would require the federal government to boost the production of critical medical supplies through the Defense Production Act, and to monitor their distribution and supply across the country. 

It would also force the Department of Labor to enact temporary safety standards to ensure employers protect health care workers during the pandemic. 

The bill has received the backing of several major labor unions, including National Nurses United, which represents more than 150,000 nurses across the country.

“How many of these frontline nurses would be here today if they had had the equipment they needed to do their jobs safely?” said Zenei Cortez, president of National Nurses United, in a statement in May. “We urge the Senate to act now to pass this bill, and to make sure that an OSHA emergency standard on infectious diseases for frontline workers is promulgated and the Defense Production Act is fully invoked so that PPE can be mass-produced in the volumes required,” she continued.

But Senate Republicans are working on crafting their own stimulus bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has consistently said he would refuse to pass a coronavirus stimulus package that does not include liability protections for businesses, health care providers, and universities.

“My red line going forward on this bill is we need to provide protection, litigation protection, for those who have been on the front lines,” said McConnell during an interview on Fox News. “We can’t pass another bill unless we have liability protection.”

Meanwhile, President Trump has threatened to veto any bill that doesn’t include a payroll tax cut, though his proposal remains unclear and has received little support from either party.

Sims said that she has been disappointed by Congress’ lack of action so far, and hopes that lawmakers will pass the HEROES Act soon. “I think that our leadership has … let us down,” she said. “They have known for quite some time now, what hospitals are attempting to do as far as decontaminating masks, and this is extremely unsafe.”

According to data from Kaiser Health News, a total of 821 U.S. medical workers have died of COVID-19 as of July 20. The deaths have occured in hospitals across the country, including at Medstar Washington, where Helen Gbodi, a 54-year-old nurse died from the virus in April. 

Julia Truelove, a nurse who works in Medstar Washington’s COVID-19 unit, said that she never imagined her hospital could face a shortage in basic medical gear. “Six months ago we never would have thought it was possible because the supplies were always there.”

In March, Truelove had to stop working for several weeks after contracting COVID-19 while treating patients in her hospital’s newly formed coronavirus ward. At the time, hospital workers were wearing surgical face coverings instead of the more protective N95 masks. “We were not using the same standard of PPE that we are now,” she said. “This has been a learning process.”

Truelove said that it’s “ridiculous” that the issue of equipment shortage hasn’t been resolved yet. “The fact that there’s been no action taken to remediate that when we don’t know how long this is going to go on is absurd.”

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