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Nurses: We Are the Canaries in the Coronavirus Mine

Instead of saying we're heroes, we need people and organizations to stand up and protest the unsafe working conditions in healthcare facilities all across the country.

Nurses at UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center hold a vigil in Los Angeles on March 30, 2020, during the novel coronavirus outbreak. - The vigil was held to celebrate the steps that have been taken at UCLA Ronald Regan Medical Center in protecting nurses' health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic and to call for further action from the federal government. (Photo: Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images)

Nurses at UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center hold a vigil in Los Angeles on March 30, 2020, during the novel coronavirus outbreak. The vigil was held to celebrate the steps that have been taken at UCLA Ronald Regan Medical Center in protecting nurses' health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic and to call for further action from the federal government. (Photo: Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images)

Nurses are the canaries in the coal mine. We can sing from our cages about the impending catastrophic damage, but the miners aren't listening, they are too frightened, arguing with each over useless accounts of who is to blame for the toxic gases filling their lungs. Unless we take collective action and force accountability upon those in power, unless we realize that it is our right to demand our profession's values be respected regardless of the political circumstances, unless we work together to unlock each other's individual cages, our warnings will be in vain. 

You deserve to know the truth: healthcare workers are falling ill by the thousands, some are dying, an unknown number are in critical condition, and there are no tests. Hospitals aren't testing their workers unless they have obvious symptoms, but we all know that sources of infection aren't limited to those of us who seek care in emergency rooms. Hospitals should be testing all of their workers in order to understand how to control infection within their facility- and the White House regularly broadcasts support of this strategy by relaying the message that "everyone who needs a test will get a test" yet the opposite is happening: we are spreading the virus throughout our healthcare systems, within our families and communities. 

There are no official statistics on the number of nurses who have been tested or who have become ill with Covid-19. This information is not publicized. The media doesn’t want you keeping track of the hundreds or thousands of healthcare providers in your state who have become ill. There are no regulators or advocacy organizations, unions or politicians acting on our behalf. We can make calls and file complaints with OSHA, the BON, the Joint Commission, the USDOL to no avail, we can write letters and send emails to our mayors, governors, representatives, and healthcare executives until the entire system collapses. And then what? 

We have patients who contract Covid-19 while in the hospital, including pregnant and laboring women, and we don't know the source of their infections. Hospitals face no penalty for this, unlike all other hospital acquired infections which are monitored and tracked by the federal government as a way of enforcing a federal standard of what is an unacceptable consequence of hospital care. Regulators impose no fines, no penalties, no legislation on healthcare organizations who clearly violate these basic safety standards, and instead they change their regulations to support the unsafe practices while employee health and HR departments tell workers who contract the virus as a result of their occupational exposure that it's an unprovable and unsubstantiated claim. 

We have families of front line workers falling ill with no way to verify their infection status. We have nurses being told to report to work with symptoms, being denied tests, and then being told that they can't get paid time off until they get a positive result on a test. We have nurses being told that they can't wear a mask while in the facility because it "looks bad," and we have nurses who are in their sixties and those with pre-existing health conditions who are being told by their management that they have no choice but to accept an unsafe work assignment, caring for positive covid patients without proper protective equipment, or else their license will be revoked. We have nurses that are being harassed and threatened with disciplinary action after they desperately post on social media about the lack of PPE. We have nurses who have been fired and made an example for blowing the whistle and highlighting the dire problems that we all face as a result of many systemic failures in our government and healthcare system. 

How do we seek justice? Where is the accountability? How can we endorse fidelity when we're being force fed lies through ridiculous policy that is based on political incompetence and corruption instead of science? How can we practice non-maleficence when we potentially carry a virus that unpredictably kills an unknown number of people - people with no prior health conditions, people who are recovering from cancer, or a broken bone, or giving birth-the very people who we are ethically obligated to not harm? Is this what caring means? Looking the other way and pretending that our ignorance means we're not responsible? . 

It's a pathetic joke. Hero worship is society's way of justifying the egregious treatment and scandalous circumstances that we're faced with. 

It's a way of refusing responsibility. if we're heroes, then no one is responsible for bettering the injustice or honestly addressing the inhumane situation. 

Instead of saying we're heroes, we need people and organizations to stand up and protest the unsafe working conditions in healthcare facilities all across the country, to donate money and source PPE, to pay hazard wages to workers on the front lines, to offer free healthcare (including mental healthcare) to these workers and their families, to offer isolation housing free of charge for those who can't afford to bring this virus home, forgive their student loan debt, their credit card debt, their medical debt, guarantee paid time off for medical leave that doesn't come out of their vacation time. Our government has the power and authority to do all of these things. Instead it portrays an oppressed group of individuals as heroes for cleaning up the mess that shouldn't have even happened in the first place. 

We're humans, not heroes. Please stop calling us heroes. Instead pick something from the list above and act. This is our chance. If we don't act now, then what's the point? 

What's the point of being a nurse if the practice of nursing forces us to violate the very tenets of our profession over and over again? I might as well work at Starbucks. At least I could sleep at night knowing I would be guaranteed two weeks paid time off to quarantine myself from the rest of the world if I were to come down with an untestable case of suspected Covid-19.

Amy Silverman

Amy Silverman is a registered nurse and writer who is passionate about social justice and healthcare reform. She works at Holos Health, a medical cannabis and functional medicine practice in Boulder, Colorado.

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