Health care workers at risk as swine flu spreads

Original source: AFL-CIO Now Blog

Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the threat of widespread human infection from the outbreak of swine flu to its second-highest level. The outbreak of swine flu originated in Mexico and is now spreading throughout the United States and around the globe.

But as an April 16 report released by the AFL-CIO and several unions, including the United American Nurses (UAN), warned, the nation’s health care workers—the first line of defense against the diseases—are at risk because many the nation’s health care facilities are not prepared to deal with a pandemic. The report, which surveyed 104 health care facilities in 14 states, found that while health care facilities have made some progress in preparing for an influenza pandemic, much more needs to be done. The survey found:

* More than one-third of the respondents believe their workplace is either not ready or only slightly ready to address the health and safety needs necessary to protect health care workers during a pandemic. * 43 percent of respondents believe that most or some of their fellow workers will stay home.

* One-third of the facilities have yet to develop a written plan for responding to pandemic flu and only 54 percent of the facilities have identified health care workers who will be at some risk of occupational exposure to the pandemic flu virus. * Fewer than half the facilities surveyed (43 percent) have provided pandemic flu training to their workers, one of the fundamental elements of protecting workers from occupational hazards.

The California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC) is urging broader national action to promote containment and prevention of a broader swine flu pandemic.

The nurses union says after years of neglect of the public safety net, the nation’s health care infrastructure is badly eroded. Says CNA/NNOC co-president Deborah Burger, RN:

'From SARS to avian flu to the current escalating outbreaks of swine influenza, it has become increasingly clear that we are risking a major catastrophe unless we act to restore the safety net, and devote the resources that are needed to protect the public.'

The CNA/NNOC’s pandemic action plan includes:

* Recruit and mobilize teams of scientists to create the appropriate effective vaccine for the virus. * Cease and desist any reductions in public health programs at federal, state and local levels. Lift any freezes on public health funding currently in place. * Implement a moratorium on any closures of emergency rooms, layoffs of direct health care personnel and reductions of hospital beds. * Assure the availability of protective equipment for all health care personnel.

For more information, visit

Meanwhile, the Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) is asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to enact flu safeguards that would include passenger screening tests for the swine flu. The AFA-CWA is also asking the FAA to order airlines to supply attendants with latex gloves and face masks and not to count sick day absences against contractually allotted sick days.

The union also wants the FAA to ensure that aircraft are equipped with proper and sufficient hand-washing materials and to emphasize the importance of regular and thorough hand-washing, and not touching one’s face, to crew and passengers.

In other swine flu developments, this week the Obama administration called on Congress to allocate $1.5 billion for combating the virus. That money to fight the swine flu outbreak would be available now if Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and “Bush’s Brain” Karl Rove” had not led the fight to strip $870 million from the Obama administration’s economic recovery package that was designated for pandemic preparation. Says John Nichols in the Nation’s blog The Beat:

'The attack on pandemic preparation became so central to the GOP strategies [to attack the recovery package] that [the Associated Press] AP reported in February: 'Republicans, meanwhile, plan to push for broader and deeper tax cuts, to trim major spending provisions that support Democrats’ longer-term policy goals, and to try to knock out what they consider questionable spending items, such as $870 million to combat the flu.'

'Sunday, Collins attempted to defend herself, dispatching a spokesman to declare that, 'There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds.' But, as The Washington Post notes: 'Collins and the others who led the fight to axe the flu money three months ago can only hope that doesn’t change.''

One the key recommendation to prevent the spread of swine is to stay home from work if you become infected with the virus. But as we reported in September, nearly 50 percent of private-sector workers have no paid sick days. For low-income workers, the number jumps to 76 percent. Says Pat Garofalo at the Think Progress Wonk Room.

'Unfortunately, staying home due to illness is simply not possible for a large number of Americans….These workers have to decide between the health of themselves and their co-workers, and the wages that they lose by staying home.

'This could be remedied by the Healthy Families Act, which Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) plan to reintroduce in Congress next month. The bill would 'guarantee workers up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from an illness or care for a sick family member.' And if it helps prevent the spread of illnesses like swine flu, even better.'

For more information, visit the CDC online at and WHO at, and check out the AFL-CIO resources on pandemic influenza.