AFT’s Weingarten, union nurses: Force firms to produce life-saving devices
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, address a news conference at UFT headquarters, in New York, Sunday, March 15, 2020. | Richard Drew / AP

WASHINGTON—The federal government must use its emergency powers to step in and force companies to produce life-saving devices—testing kits, N95 masks and respirators, patient care beds, and temporary hospitals among them—“now” to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Teachers President Randi Weingarten declares.

And if companies try to make a profit off those devices, take them over, she adds.

Weingarten’s sharp demands came in a March 20 telephone press conference, conducted with four state leaders of AFT’s nurses, who include hospital nurses, public health nurses, and school nurses. Their numbers make AFT one of the largest nurses unions in the U.S.

And those nurses are upset that they’re not getting the protective equipment they need so they can treat everyone else during the spreading coronavirus pandemic—a lack Weingarten squarely lays on the GOP Trump administration and its inaction.

“If I sound angry, I am,” the steaming New York City civics teacher said. “There was time to do this all the time”—several months after initial warnings—before Trump finally moved, she declared.

“One, we need to nationalize this. Two, we need to make sure of the safety of our frontline protectors.”

“And we have to test each and every one of the nurses” so they can, if declared free of the coronavirus, treat everyone else.

What particularly caused Weingarten to blow her top was not just the lack of testing kits and other protection for front-line workers battling the pandemic, but a combination of Trump administration denial, incidents where prominent personalities went to the front of the line for testing, and a statement by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., saying his state would be willing “to pay a premium for these supplies,” as she put it.

“Why should the supplies be controlled by the market, not by the government?” Weingarten asked.

“We cannot win this war if we are not healthy and protected,” added Anne Goldman, a registered nurse and vice president of the United Federation of Teachers, AFT’s New York City—and largest—local.

The Big Apple, though, is “already rationing our ability to protect each and every frontline worker” against the pandemic. “We need the equipment and we need it now.”

“The order and the waiting line” for respirators, masks, and other equipment “is unacceptable.”

“We hope we will not be triaging respirators next week and deciding who will get the respirators and who will not,” Goldman said, bleakly. Then, also steaming, she declared; “The NBA gets more protection than we do.”

And her colleague on the university level, Latisha Abraham-Nichols of the United University Professions’ Downstate Medical Center chapter, added coronavirus “testing is being rationed” due to a lack of kits.

Reports reaching AFT, other unions and state and local officials tell of looming shortages, particularly of the N95 masks and respirators, and of test kits. The nurses “must have these things right now: The kits, the masks, the gowns, the gloves, the cleaning supplies” to disinfect rooms and beds, Weingarten declared.

The union previously reported some of its nurse members have resorted to making their own masks, calling them “bandannas” and “scarves” and following federal Centers for Disease Control recommendations on how to create them.

Left unchecked, unprotected, and unclean, Weingarten, citing a study in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, said up to 80% of the U.S. could fall ill and millions would die.

Though the union leader did not say so, a similar prediction—70% infection rate—came from German chancellor Angela Merkel. And Italy’s death toll has now surpassed that of China, where the virus originated, and is continuing to climb despite an Italy-wide quarantine of its 60 million people.

Adrienne Enghouse, RN, president of AFT’s Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said there are other sources of protective equipment the states and the federal government could tap. She noted Oregon ordered all dentists’ offices and veterinary hospitals and clinics closed.

Those facilities have unused N95 masks, respirators, and protective gloves and gowns, she said. But “they put profits over people” and refuse to give them up. Enghouse suggested the National Guard seize those supplies.

The situation is so bad in Oregon, that “it’s like asking Fire Fighters to run into a fire without protective equipment.”

The virus is galloping so fast, added John Brady, head of the union’s Connecticut nurses affiliate, “that one nurse, who served in three hospitals—two in Southwest Connecticut and one in New York—tested positive last week” and by the time she was quarantined, another 159 people were infected. He said that approximately 20 of 200 quarantined employees of Nuvance Health, a New York-based network that operates facilities in the region, are members of their local unions at Danbury Hospital

“Our members are taking extra shifts and coming out of retirement” to help diagnose and care for coronavirus victims, Brady said. But they need protection to do that. “Every shift raises the risk.”

Besides protecting the nurses and health care providers so they can test, quarantine, and treat others, the 1.7-million-member AFT now believes “a national school closing is inevitable” to help prevent “community spread” of the coronavirus, and school districts, teachers and students must prepare for it.

That community spread has helped infect more than 49,000 people so far nationwide, and more than 360 have died.

New York City – the nation’s largest school system – has closed down to stop the illness from jumping from student to student and teacher to teacher. So have the schools in Maryland, Chicago, Baltimore, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere.

On March 20, Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., put the entire state, the nation’s most—populous, on virtual lockdown. That immobilized more than 40 million people. So did Cuomo, predicting community spread of coronavirus cases could overwhelm New York’s hospital system.

The Trump administration, however, has responded with mild measures in the schools, and none to do with nurses. Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, a GOP big giver who hates public schools, their teachers and their unions, announced March 20 that “upon a proper request” OKd by her agency, any state could skip standardized testing through the end of this school year. That, DeVos said, would help avoid the crowds of students which could enhance “community spread” of the coronavirus.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).