"Our government has treated us as if we are expendable."
The largest union of registered nurses in the United States on Monday delivered a scathing rebuke to Congress and President Donald Trump for failing to protect healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic and warned that continued federal inaction could render the nation unable "to return to any degree of normalcy."
In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the leaders of National Nurses United said many "deaths would have been prevented if our government had prioritized the health and safety of healthcare workers."
"Instead," the nurses wrote, "our government has treated us as if we are expendable."
"The dire conditions under which we are working are unnecessary, and our government has failed to protect us and our patients during this pandemic."
—National Nurses United
NNU urged Pelosi to pass a change in House rules to allow remote voting so that the chamber can safely craft and pass legislation that addresses the desperate workplace safety and economic needs of frontline workers. Last month, as Common Dreams reported, Pelosi abruptly tabled a rule change that would have allowed proxy voting as House members remain in their home districts as a safety precaution.
"Registered nurses and other healthcare workers are risking their lives every day to care for patients suffering from Covid-19," NNU said. "The dire conditions under which we are working are unnecessary, and our government has failed to protect us and our patients during this pandemic."
"For two months we have been urgently demanding that the Trump administration and Congress step up to ensure that healthcare workers get the personal protective equipment (PPE) that they need," the nurses continued. "We've called on Congress and the administration to mandate the promulgation of an emergency temporary OSHA standard to protect frontline workers. For two months, both the Trump administration and Congress have failed to act to protect frontline healthcare workers."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, healthcare workers could account for 11% of all U.S. coronavirus cases. Officially, more than two dozen healthcare workers have died from Covid-19, but the actual death toll is believed to be far higher.
Despite the devastating impact of Covid-19 on healthcare workers and their essential role in combating the virus, the stimulus packages passed by Congress and signed into law by Trump thus far have done little to address the immediate needs of frontline employees. The president came under fire last month for authorizing military flyovers as a "tribute" to frontline workers while nurses still lack adequate masks and other safety equipment.
During a protest in front of the White House on April 21, one NNU member expressed dismay that political leaders continue to call nurses "heroes" while failing to heed their calls for basic necessities.
"I think that right now people think of us as heroes, but we're feeling like martyrs," the nurse said. "We're feeling like we're being left on the battlefield with nothing."
In addition to PPE, healthcare workers have also called on Congress to approve hazard pay for frontline employees. But the Washington Post reported last week that the proposal "has not been seriously considered during negotiations over any of the four bills approved by Congress to respond to the novel coronavirus."
In a speech on the House floor last month following the passage of an interim coronavirus stimulus bill, Pelosi assured the public that the next legislative package—which she dubbed the "Heroes Act"—will address the needs of those "on the front lines of fighting this virus."
"We owe them," Pelosi said.
But it is unclear when another stimulus package could pass given that the House remains out of session. Politico reported Monday that Pelosi told House committee chairs that she hopes to have a legislative package completed by the end of the week, but no specifics on the measure's contents have been released.
"The bill could reach the floor for a vote as soon as next week," Politico reported, "although several top Democrats are skeptical of that timeline given the scope of the legislation and uncertainty over when House members will return to Washington."
Some Democratic lawmakers have expressed frustration with the top-down legislative process as lawmakers remain away from Capitol Hill due to the coronavirus crisis, giving the House Democratic leadership near-total control over the final product with little to no input from rank-and-file members.
"They'll let us know when it's done and then tell us how to vote," one anonymous House Democrat told HuffPost.
In their letter to Pelosi on Monday, NNU wrote that "nurses across the country need legislators to immediately pass a mandate for an emergency temporary OSHA standard and increased production of PPE."
"The nation cannot afford Congress to be paralyzed by inaction," the nurses said.
Read the full letter:
Dear Madam Speaker:
Registered nurses and other health care workers are risking their lives every day to care for patients suffering from COVID-19. The dire conditions under which we are working are unnecessary, and our government has failed to protect us and our patients during this pandemic.
For two months we have been urgently demanding that the Trump Administration and Congress step up to ensure that health care workers get the personal protective equipment (PPE) that they need. We've called on Congress and the Administration to mandate the promulgation of an emergency temporary OSHA standard to protect frontline workers, and the full invocation of the Defense Production Act to urgently increase production of PPE, medical equipment, and testing supplies. For two months, both the Trump Administration and Congress have failed to act to protect frontline health care workers.
The CDC has estimated that between 10 percent and 20 percent of all COVID-19 positive patients are health care workers, and scores of these workers have died as a result. These deaths would have been prevented if our government had prioritized the health and safety of health care workers. Instead, our government has treated us as if we are expendable. If we don’t protect health care workers, the pandemic will not be controlled,and our country will not be able to return to any degree of normalcy.
We are deeply concerned that you have once again postponed reconvening the House of Representatives. To be clear, as registered nurses, we support the reported caution expressed by the Attending Physician of the United States Congress regarding gatherings of Congress, given the continued risks presented by COVID-19 in the District of Columbia and across the nation. We do not want Members of Congress or their staff members to risk their health or their lives.
At the same time, Congress must move forward with the peoples' business during these difficult days. Congress is in a classic Catch-22: You cannot reconvene the Congress as long as the pandemic poses dire risks to Members and their staffs, but the pandemic will not be contained unless Congress reconvenes and passes a CARES 2 bill that addresses the needs of the nation. As such we endorse the proposals put forward by Committee on Rules Chairman Jim McGovern to bring the House back into session temporarily to address the pandemic utilizing proxy voting and remote committee proceedings, while exploring longer term solutions in the face of these challenges.
We urge you to immediately reconvene the House using the safety precautions proposed by Chairman McGovern. Nurses across the country need legislators to immediately pass a mandate for an emergency temporary OSHA standard and increased production of PPE. The nation cannot afford Congress to be paralyzed by inaction.