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Nurses hold a vigil outside of the White House

Activists gather during a vigil in Lafayette Park for nurses who have died during the Covid-19 pandemic on January 13, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

At White House Vigil, Nurses Decry 'Unacceptable' Pandemic Response

"Nurses are enraged that, for our government and our employers, it's all about what's good for business, not what's good for public health."

Jake Johnson

Nurses dismayed by the federal government's floundering pandemic response capped off a day of strikes and demonstrations Thursday with a candlelight vigil outside the White House, where healthcare workers gathered to commemorate colleagues who have lost their lives to Covid-19.

"We can't safely care for our patients if we are sick ourselves."

The nurses attending the event, organized by National Nurses United (NNU), set out 481 candles to represent the 481 registered nurses known to have died of Covid-19 in the United States, which has the highest coronavirus death toll in the world. Overall, nearly 5,000 U.S. healthcare workers have died from the coronavirus.

"Unfortunately this is the third event or fourth event that we've had recognizing nurses who have died," said Julia Truelove, a Washington, D.C. nurse and NNU member. "And we chose candles to represent that those were lights in their communities and their families, and those lights have not gone out, but just to remember the good they did in their communities."

"Nurses and healthcare workers across the country have been working incredibly hard," she added. "And to know that our federal government is basing our protections on less than the best is unacceptable. One of the jobs of the government is to protect the public health, and to not have them taking action to do that is demoralizing, and we're desperate."

The vigil came just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Biden administration order requiring healthcare workers at facilities receiving federal money to be vaccinated against Covid-19. In a significant blow to the administration, the conservative-dominated court also struck down a vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers.

While applauding the 5-4 decision on the healthcare facility rules as important, NNU president Zenei Triunfo-Cortez said in a statement that vaccine requirements must be just one part of a comprehensive federal pandemic response as the Omicron strain pushes infections to record levels, overwhelming hospitals and pushing nurses to the brink.

The Supreme Court's ruling on healthcare facilities, said Triunfo-Cortez, "should be a signal to the Department of Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take the next necessary step—extending the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) issued last June until adopting a permanent standard based on it for healthcare workplaces."

"We need permanent protections based on science and we need them now."

Despite the emergence and rapid spread of Omicron in the U.S., the Labor Department's allowed its ETS to expire last month, leaving healthcare workers with dramatically weakened on-the-job protections.

Earlier this week, NNU applauded nearly 140 members of Congress for demanding that the Labor Department institute a permanent Covid-19 standard for healthcare employees to guarantee adequate and lasting workplace protections.

"It is critical that the federal government ensures that nurses and other healthcare workers are getting the protections we need to do our jobs safely, without putting ourselves or our families at risk of Covid exposure," said NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo, RN. "We can't safely care for our patients if we are sick ourselves."

"The Biden administration must quickly issue a final permanent Covid-19 healthcare standard—and retain the emergency temporary standard until the permanent standard goes into effect—before one more nurse is sidelined, lost to the profession, or lost to this world for good," she added.

In recent months, nurses have been ramping up their criticism of the Biden administration's pandemic response, which they've characterized as scattershot, confusing, and often too slow to adapt to predictable developments such as the rise of new and highly contagious variants.

Particularly appalling to nurses and other workers was the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's decision last month to loosen isolation guidelines for people with asymptomatic coronavirus infections—a change that big businesses lobbied for.

The CDC's move is already impacting healthcare employees. As Politico reported earlier this week, many hospitals and long-term care facilities in the U.S. are "compelling Covid-positive doctors and nurses to return to work, arguing that bringing back asymptomatic or even symptomatic staff is the only way they can keep their doors open amid a spike in hospitalizations."

"The practice, allowed by the most recent CDC guidance, underscores the dire situation in which many facilities find themselves as more than 120,000 people nationwide are now hospitalized with the virus—almost three times the total from Thanksgiving when Omicron was first detected," the outlet noted.

On Thursday, nurses in 11 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. walked off the job to call attention to and protest dangerous working conditions.

"Our employers claim there is a 'nursing shortage,' and that's why they must flout optimal isolation times, but we know there are plenty of registered nurses in this country," said Triunfo-Cortez. "There is only a shortage of nurses willing to work in the unsafe conditions created by hospital employers and this government's refusal to impose lifesaving standards. So this is a vicious cycle where weakening protections just drives more nurses away from their jobs."

Castillo added in a statement that "the working conditions that our employers and the federal government are telling nurses and healthcare workers to endure are both grossly unfair and unsustainable, and we are standing up... to say, 'Enough!'"

"We need permanent protections based on science and we need them now," she added, "because when nurses and healthcare workers aren't safe, we cannot keep our patients safe."

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