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We Must Redefine "Frontline" by Providing PPE for All Workers

Please join us so that every single frontline worker who needs masks and other PPE to protect themselves, their families, and the communities they serve—gets that crucial equipment.

Nurses counter protest at the Re-Open Illinois Protest outside of Thompson Center in Chicago during protest restrictions instituted by the governor to curtail the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 on May 01, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Although some restrictions were eased today, the state is currently on a "stay at home" order mandated until May 30. (Photo: Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Nurses counter protest at the Re-Open Illinois Protest outside of Thompson Center in Chicago during protest restrictions instituted by the governor to curtail the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 on May 01, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Although some restrictions were eased today, the state is currently on a "stay at home" order mandated until May 30. (Photo: Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

We are a team of health care workers volunteering our time, effort, and expertise to help Masks For America achieve its goals of sending FDA-certified KN95 masks to every frontline worker in the United States, including Puerto Rico. Our colleagues providing direct patient care have not been given the necessary protections to do their jobs. Inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) puts their lives and their patients’ lives at risk, threatening individual and public health. In one month and with donations averaging $21, the grassroots team of volunteers at Masks For America has delivered 100,000 masks to health care workers. 

However, public health depends on much more than just health care workers. Our brethren who stock the shelves at grocery stores and pharmacies are necessary to maintaining  public health, as they supply us with nutritious food and medications needed to stay alive. Our comrades who work in sanitation keep all of us healthy as they clean hospitals, streets, stores, and other facilities. Our brothers and sisters in transportation—driving buses and trucks, operating subways, and managing highways—are critical to the fabric of public health. Our heroes in public safety, our police officers and fire and rescue teams, deserve to be protected as they protect us.

"None of us can be healthy without the contributions of millions of workers."

Every single one of these workers puts their lives on the line during this pandemic. Every single frontline worker needs masks and other PPE to protect themselves, their families, and the communities they serve.

Despite being labeled “essential,” these workers are treated like they are expendable. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers, 10 meatpacking workers and 3 food processing workers have died of COVID-19, and at least 6,500 workers have either tested positive for the novel coronavirus or missed work while self-quarantining and waiting for test results.

Nonetheless, Trump is forcing meatpacking plants to stay open, without any mention of what PPE workers will get while on the job. To add insult to injury, he is ordering the plants to stay open using the Defense Production Act—the same law that he’s hesitated to invoke to ramp up production of ventilators and PPE!

At least 41 grocery store workers died of coronavirus by early April, yet the nation’s largest grocery chains like Walmart and Kroger allegedly discouraged their employees from wearing masks or none were provided. While some grocery store chains are supposedly now providing masks for some of their employees, it is unclear what the quality and quantity of these masks are. There are 3 million grocery store workers across America who play a vital role in our nutrition and must be protected from COVID-19 with PPE and policies that protect health and safety.

At least 94 transit workers have already died because of the coronavirus. In hardest hit New York City, about 2,500 Metropolitan Transit Authority employees tested positive for COVID-19, and over 4,000 have been in quarantine. Though some cities have recently given masks to bus drivers, subway operators, and mechanics, we need more comprehensive workplace policies across the country and reliable supply chains of PPE to guarantee protection during this pandemic.

The dangerous work environments endured by most workers in transportation, sanitation, and the food supply chain have far-reaching public health consequences. During this pandemic, we have learned the novel coronavirus is causing disproportionate amounts of suffering and death among Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities. Less than one in five Black workers and less than one in six Latinx workers can work from home. Communities of color are doing work deemed essential but are not being protected on the job.

There is nothing about the biology of the virus nor the biology of people of color that can explain the inequities of this pandemic. Instead, we must confront the fact that people of color have labored in hazardous work environments for low pay and inadequate benefits for decades. People of color make up 59 percent of America’s uninsured. Our health care system uses a range of financial barriers and administrative hurdles to ration care according to who is deserving or undeserving. As a result, people of color suffer excessive levels of conditions like asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer.

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Coronavirus is not killing more people of color because they are unlucky. It is because our work environments and health care system have been chronically unjust.

Food processing workers, grocery store workers, delivery truck drivers, subway operators, and many, many more are all part of America’s public health fabric. None of us can be healthy without the contributions of millions of workers.

Appropriate PPE is just a starting point. We have to value workers for more than just their labor. Every single one of them has families and friends who cherish them as full individuals, worthy of love and living life to their full potential. Living wages, paid sick leave, workplace safety, paid vacation, pensions, and the right to unionize are among the many policies and dignities we must guarantee every worker across the country. But to make that decency a reality, workers must first survive this pandemic. So how about we get some damn masks?

"Coronavirus is not killing more people of color because they are unlucky. It is because our work environments and health care system have been chronically unjust."

At Masks For America, we are demanding every public and private employer provide their workers with masks and PPE that meet the highest standards of safety and science. We call upon our members of Congress to upgrade OSHA standards for all workers to get optimal PPE.

None of what we are talking about is easy. But, if a small group of unpaid volunteers can raise over $200,000 in less than a month from everyday people and get nearly 100,000 masks to health care workers, then we know that politicians and corporations with tremendous power and abundant resources can step up and deliver meaningful protection to every worker for the duration of this pandemic.

Our public health cannot survive on goodwill. Now is the time for willpower.

Sincerely,

Sanjeev K. Sriram, MD, MPH, Senior Advisor to Social Security Works
Bob Bland
Kristin Mink
Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez
Saira Rao
Nylah Burton
Richard Bruno, MD, MPH
Isaiah A. Cochran, MD -- Immediate Past President, American Medical Student Association
MarkAlain Dery, DO, MPH
Kristy M. Fogle, MMS, PA-C
Yolandra Hancock, MD, MPH
Michael Hernandez, MD
Pat Kane, RN
Justin Lowenthal, MD-PhD candidate, Doctors For America

Dr. Sanjeev K. Sriram

Dr. Sanjeev K. Sriram is the host of “Dr. America,” an innovative podcast about public policy and health justice on We Act Radio. He also writes about connections between health policy, inequity, and social determinants of health. Dr. Sriram completed his medical degree and his pediatrics residency at UCLA, where he served as Chief Resident at the Department of Pediatrics. In June 2009, he earned his Master’s in Public Health after completing the Commonwealth Fund Mongan Fellowship in Minority Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. He currently practices general pediatrics in southeast Washington, D.C.

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