Nurses to feds: Put people before profits in COVID fight
NNU President Jean Ross, RN, at event to honor the more than 400 registered nurses who have died from the Covid-19 pandemic | NNU

OAKLAND, Calif.—The nation’s largest union of registered nurses, National Nurses United, urged the federal government, and specifically the Centers for Disease Control, not to put profits before people and to hold the line on its guidance for firms in the anti-coronavirus fight. But it lost.

The union, citing the rapid spread of the coronavirus’s Omicron variant, wanted CDC to stick with its standard of 10-day isolation for people who test positive but are asymptomatic i.e. don’t show symptoms of the modern-day plague. No, CDC said on December 27. Five is enough.

“U.S. employers are beginning a drumbeat urging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to weaken Covid-19 guidance,” NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, formally warned CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in a mid-December letter.

“Specifically, employers are calling for the CDC to reduce the timeframe for fully vaccinated workers to isolate if they test positive for SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus) from ten to five days. Proposals vary, but the arguments solely focus on maintaining business operations, revenues, and profits, without regard for science or the health of employees and the public,” she wrote.

But Walensky said “no” to NNU and its formal letter, plus other questioners. Her agency shortened the quarantine time for asymptomatic coronavirus sufferers to five days.

And four days before, Walensky shortened the quarantine for asymptomatic health care workers from 10 days to seven, if the workers test negative “and less than that if there are staffing shortages.” In both cases, after exiting isolation, the asymptomatic sufferers must still wear protective masks for five more days, Walensky stated.

With Omicron making up the virus’s “fourth wave” in the U.S., the number of people testing positive has been rising.  As of 9 am on January 3, the cumulative total of positive tests in the U.S. since the pandemic began was 56.19 million, and 827,499 had died. The test total is slightly more than the combined populations of California, Illinois, and Oregon. The death toll equals everyone in Seattle and 74,000 more people in its suburbs.

None of this sat well with Triunfo-Cortez.

“The Omicron variant of concern presents a renewed threat to public health in our country and around the world. While many questions remain incompletely answered, preliminary data indicates Omicron is extremely transmissible,  as virulent as Delta, and has enhanced immune escape,” she wrote on the union’s behalf.

“There is no conclusive evidence that shortening the isolation time following a positive test will effectively prevent further transmission. Now is not the time to relax protections. We urge the CDC to maintain and enhance guidance to protect public health.”

In a footnote in her letter—one of dozens citing professional medical journal findings—Triunfo-Cortez noted the CDC’s own December 21 study Variant Proportions reported Omicron “increased from 13% to 73% of sequenced cases in the United States, per CDC data and estimates,” in a few weeks.

“The World Health Organization reports, ‘There is consistent evidence that Omicron has a substantial growth advantage over Delta,” the other leading coronavirus variant, another footnote says. “It is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant in countries with documented community transmission, with a doubling time between 1.5-3 days,” she added.

“Nurses and other health care workers have worked on the frontlines of this pandemic for nearly two years. We are exhausted. We have experienced incomparable loss,” Triunfo-Cortez continued. “As of Dec. 17, 2021, at least 4,686 health care workers have died from Covid-19, including at least 476 registered nurses.

“Too many of us have experienced deep distress and injury caused by the abandonment of our health and safety by our employers and governments during the pandemic. We continue to have to fight for the workplace protections we need to care for our patients safely.

“Weakening guidance on isolation is not the solution to the staffing crisis in health care settings; improving protections is. The hospital industry manufactured the current staffing crisis by imposing unsafe working conditions on nurses.”

Citing its periodic surveys of more than 5,000 RNs, Triunfo-Cortez added the staffing crisis “began before the pandemic and has been exacerbated by the failure of hospitals to protect us and our patients during the pandemic. More nurses would return to direct care if hospitals immediately improved working conditions.”

That failure, she warned, means conditions in hospitals could mimic the staffing disaster—and illnesses and deaths among workers—that occurred under the GOP Trump regime in 2020.

Then, Trump’s political operatives overrode professional recommendations and told hospitals to order health care workers to come to work, protected or not. The hospitals did so, and many refused to provide personal protective equipment, including masks and ventilators, to RNs and other health care workers, Triunfo-Cortez said.

But Walensky had another, more complex, view of the shortage of health care personnel, including RNs, to treat the virus. “Our goal is to keep health care personnel and patients safe and to address and prevent undue burden on our health care facilities. Our priority remains prevention—and I strongly encourage all healthcare personnel to get vaccinated and boosted.”

She did not address the corporate pressure for profits issue Triunfo-Cortez raised. Nor, understandably, did it surface on a check of the American Hospital Association’s website.


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 tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.