The number of COVID-19 cases has reached new records, fueled by the highly contagious Delta and Omicron variants. More and better safety measures are clearly needed to stop the spread. The Biden administration, however, is doing the opposite. Caving in to corporate demands, on Dec. 27 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut in half the recommended isolation time for people with COVID-19 from 10 to five days. On Dec. 28, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cancelled regulations which gave mandatory protection to health care workers.
Unions and nurses are outraged, charging the government with protecting profits and endangering workers.
Businesses hails CDC safety cuts
The CDC’s slashing of isolation guidelines to five days for those infected and for unvaccinated people exposed to COVID-19 caves in to businesses wanting workers back on the clock fast, regardless of safety, to maximize profits. The CDC change came a week after Delta Air Lines urged it to reduce isolation time. The new recommendations were immediately hailed by the Food Industry Association, the National Retail Federation and Airlines for America, the trade groups of the respective industries. Their biggest concerns are net losses, as airlines have cancelled thousands of flights and many restaurants and retail stores have had to shut down because so many of their employees were sick.
Especially appealing to big business is the following part of the CDC guidelines: “Alternatively, if a 5-day quarantine is not feasible, it is imperative that an exposed person wear a well-fitting mask at all times when around others for 10 days after exposure.” This “alternative” leaves the door open for corporations, not scientists, to determine whether a five-day quarantine “is feasible,” and to force workers to come in when they are sick.
Airline staff already pressured to work while sick
This is exactly what airline workers fear. The Association of Flight Attendants responded to the guideline changes by emphasizing that employees should not be expected to return to work unless they have no symptoms and test negative.
Sara Nelson, the international president of the union points out that, “Already the lack of paid sick leave creates pressure on workers to come to work sick.” She added, “Corporations that fail to recognize this with paid sick leave, or pressure workers to come to work sick or face discipline, are failing their workers and their customers.” The AFA represents 50,000 flight crew workers at 17 airlines.
With hospitals overflowing and ICUs stretched thin, the CDC also shortened the isolation period for nurses and other healthcare workers testing positive for COVID-19 from 10 to seven days. The government agency no longer requires exposed vaccinated and boosted health care workers to quarantine at all. This puts both health care workers and their patients at risk. “Let’s be clear, this is about what’s good for business, not what’s good for public health,” said Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, President of National Nurses United, which represents 175,000 nurses nationwide.
OSHA protections removed
On Dec. 27, OSHA discontinued an Emergency Temporary Standard adopted in June that made compulsory health care worker protections on infection control, with penalties for employers who violate the requirements. The temporary standards were adopted due to unrelenting campaign by union nurses, and over the extensive opposition from the hospital industry and other corporate interests. The temporary ETS, which expired Dec. 21, was not replaced with a permanent standard.
40 organizations back nurse safety
OSHA made this pro-boss decision even though more than 40 organizations, including unions, and more than 6,300 individuals signed a petition urging it to make its emergency temporary standard permanent for healthcare workplaces.
“It is unconscionable that OSHA would not make the Covid-19 health care ETS permanent,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN.
“Without a permanent standard, we will see more preventable transmission of the virus, more hospitalizations, and more deaths from Covid-19. It is absolutely essential that our frontline health care workers have these lifesaving protections to do their jobs safely so they can continue to care for patients, especially when we are now facing Delta and Omicron variants as well as flu season.”
Some 476 RNs have died of COVID-19, among 4,702 health care worker deaths overall, according to NNU, and more than one million U.S. health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Strengthening, not weakening protections, is the solution to the staffing crisis,” said Triunfo-Cortez. “The hospital industry manufactured the current staffing crisis by imposing unsafe working conditions on nurses. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated long standing staffing issues when hospitals failed to protect us and our patients.”
The nurses are backed by other unions. On Dec. 28, the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of Teachers; National Nurses United; AFSCME; the United Food and Commercial Workers; the United Steelworkers; the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union-UFCW; and SEIU issued a joint statement condemning OSHA’s removal of the ETS for health care workers.
“The ETS made clear to health care employers that proven prevention measures limiting airborne exposures to COVID-19 are absolutely necessary and would be fully enforced to keep workers from getting sick and being removed from work. These include improved ventilation, patient screening and respirators, and providing paid leave when workers are infected and must quarantine. … all proven protective measures must remain in place. … to protect workers now, we need to build on the emergency COVID-19 standard by making it permanent, not scrapping it altogether.”
This fight is far from over. The NNU and its backers have pledged to continue the fight for mandatory and enforceable science-driven safety standards that fully protect healthcare workers, patients and all workers. To draw attention to the failure of the federal government and employers to protect patients, nurses and other health care and frontline workers, NNU has called a national day of action on Jan. 13.
“Nurses across the country will be standing up for change on Jan. 13, and we call on our communities to stand with us,” said Triunfo-Cortez. “Nurses have fought every single day of this pandemic for strong protections, and we are not going to stand by while the federal government and our employers weaken those protections by the day. We are not going backward now.”