Nurses protested in front of the White House on April 21 to draw attention to the plight of nurses and other health care workers who do not have adequate safety equipment to protect them against COVID-19 infection. Thousands of health care workers have already become infected with COVID-19 and many have lost their lives.
The protest was organized by National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union of registered nurses in the US. The union had already held a number of vigils and protests at hospitals across the US calling for adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Protesters honor nurses who have died
The protesting nurses wore N95 masks and maintained social distancing by standing on pre-marked blue crosses. Posters of nurses who had lost their lives were held up while the names of the nearly 50 nurses, who are known to have died from COVID-19 across the US, were read out solemnly.
“We’re here because our colleagues are dying,” nurse Erica Jones, who works in Washington, told NBC News. “I think that right now, people think of us as heroes. But we’re feeling like martyrs, we’re feeling like we’re being left on the battlefield with nothing.”
Nurses need protection
For months professional nursing organizations and unions in the US, and internationally, have been calling for adequate protection for health care providers but it appears to have made little difference. Many hospitals are still not providing health care staff with the PPE that they need.
At some hospitals, N95 masks have to be reused, not only during a single shift but sometimes for days or weeks. Doctors and nurses are being prevented by hospital administrators from speaking out and some have been disciplined or dismissed for calling attention to their plight.
By now it is likely that tens-of-thousands of health care providers have already been infected with COVID-19. According to the CDC, the person’s occupation was only provided for 16% of the cases reported to them by April 9. Of these cases, 9282 (19%) were health care providers and their median age was 42 years. These health care workers had contact with COVID-19 patients in health care settings, households, and communities.
The NNU protesters’ demands included that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) create an emergency temporary standard for optimal PPE for health care workers when they work with patients who might be infected with COVID-19. This would force employers to provide health care staff with the necessary safety equipment. The union sent this request in written form as early as March 4 this year and had received no response to date.
Furthermore, the union is demanding that President Trump orders mass production of PPE as well as COVID-19 testing kits under the authority given to him under the Defense Production Act (DPA). They also called on Congress to mandate the use of the DPA for the production of equipment and supplies as happens during the times of war.
“We’re tired of being treated as if we are expendable. If we are killed in this pandemic, there won’t be anybody to take care of the rest of the sick people that are going to come,” said Deborah Burger, President of the NNU. “Everybody says they love nurses, they want to protect us, but we still don’t have the safety gear that we need.”