As the Omicron wave crests in the northeast, burned-out nurses across the country are again turning to collective action, including rotating walkouts and demonstrations, at dozens of hospitals across more than 11 states and the nation’s capital. As some hospitals teeter dangerously close buckling under the strain of a record high number of COVID-19 patients, nursing unions are urging a competent and comprehensive pandemic response — and calling out the role of for-profit health care in the burgeoning crisis.
Registered nurses (RNs), across the United States, are calling for ever-worsening conditions both for patients and health care workers. This includes dangerous under-staffing, weakening federal COVID safety standards, and unsafe under-staffing. averaging over 790,000Daily cases are added. The tally is likely an underestimate, as many states have not released new data since Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Last week, RNs from National Nurses United (NNU), held a candlelight vigil outside of the White House to remember their colleagues who died from COVID-19. To honor the 481 RN COVID-19 victims in the U.S., they lit 481 candles. highest known COVID death tollAll over the world. According to NNU tracking dataMore than 4,700 U.S. healthcare workers died from COVID infection.
Some hospital systems are in danger of falling apart as they struggle with caring for 156,505 patients who are COVID-positive. according to data released Monday from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, surpassing records set during last winter’s Delta surge. Some hospitals have been closed due to the surge. halting non-urgent proceduresNational Guard personnel will be used to fill in the critical staffing gaps. Friday’s Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio mobilized more than 1,000 National Guard members to help fill in critical staffing gaps. Mike DeWine, Ohio, mobilized more than 1,000 National Guard soldiers to assist with hospital staffing. President Joe Biden likewise deployed 1,000 military medical personnel to six statesWhere hospitals are overwhelmed.
RNs from across the country are using the hospital capacity crisis as a reason to protest state and federal COVID safety protocol rollbacks. This includes at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and others. weaken COVID isolation guidelinesAnd protections for health care workers.
The CDC’s weakening of isolations guidelines has led to many hospitals and health care facilities compelling COVID-positive doctors and nurses to return to work. Hospital and clinic administrators argue that such moves are necessary to maintain their doors open in the face of skyrocketing hospitalizations.
Nursing unions have criticized the Biden administration’s focus on protecting employers’ interests, which they say has hampered his administration’s pandemic response from being able to quickly adapt to new and predictable variants. While NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week to uphold a Biden administration order requiring COVID-19 vaccination for health care workers at facilities receiving federal money, she said in a statementThe federal pandemic response must include more than just the requirements for vaccines for health care workers.
Triunfo-Cortez said the recent Supreme Court ruling “should be a signal to the Department of Labor and [OSHA] to take the next necessary step — extending the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) issued last June until adopting a permanent standard based on it for health care workplaces.” Despite the emergence and rapid spread of Omicron in the U.S., the Labor Department allowed its ETS, which imposed mandatory requirements for health care employers on infection control protections, to expire last month.
State and federal officials have called the expiration and similar moves necessary to keep hospitals staffed amid the Omicron surge, but many RNs are calling this argument a distraction, noting that the for-profit health care system artificially deflates staffing levels to protect hospital employers’ bottom lines. They are urging the government to abolish the for-profit system of health care and to move to a single-payer system. NNU claims that hospitals could have been staffed up to handle the temporary absence of sick employees under a single-payer system.
Profit-driven hospitals’ continual failure to invest in safe staffing is what’s creating the kind of dangerous working conditions driving nurses away from the profession at a time when they are needed most, unionized RNs say. “Nurses will tell you we are failing because we have led the interests of corporations and our hospital employers dictate our country’s response to this virus. Their goal is profit, not saving lives,” Triunfo-Cortez said during a press conference last week.
NNU conducted a surveyThousands of RNs across the nation from October to December 2021. 83% of those who responded said that at least half their shifts were unsafely staffed. Sixty-eight per cent said they had considered quitting their job. Immediately increasing staffing levels and growing the pool of available nurses is what’s needed to prevent rising burnout and resignations, the nurses’ union argues.
Elizabeth Lalasz is an NNU union steward, registered medical surgical nurse, and a registered medical sterile nurse at the Stroger Hospital, Chicago, Illinois. This flagship hospital of Cook County Health System tells TruthoutAfter her union strike last June, the hospital management agreed that 300 more nurses would be hired. That’s the kind of collective action that she says is necessary amid the Omicron surge.
Lalasz tells Truthout that solidarity with other frontline workers in Chicago isn’t simply a choice for nurses but a necessity. Nurses realized that if they didn’t support the Chicago Teachers Union in its recent work stoppage across the Chicago Public School system, the city’s hospitals might be more overwhelmed than they already are, she says. “[Teachers] were [originally] asking to be remote until January 18, which would have helped us in the hospitals to bring down the volume of COVID patients,” Lalasz says. “That kind of solidarity, seeing that connection, I think is integral to us seeing how our struggle is tied.”
She also echoed Triunfo-Cortez in identifying the for-profit health care system as the primary driver of unsafe staffing, noting, “When you’re for-profit, what you’re thinking about is that bottom line, like, ‘How can I cut a corner?’” In such a calculation, labor costs for nurses are seen as “expensive” — so those costs are lowered even when it’s unsafe to do so, she says.
California: Single-Payer Supported By RNs
California is hotly pursuing single-payer and increased staffing. 18 unionized hospitals participated in actions last week under Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) decision to let the hospital management force infected but asymptomatic health care workers back to work without isolation or testing.
These moves are coming as Los Angeles County reported Monday that it had more than 31,500 new COVID cases — a nearly tenfold increase from a month ago — and as the number of COVID-positive patients in Sacramento County hospitals has reached a record pandemic high.
But even as nurses with the California Nurses Association (CNA) and NNU condemned the governor’s actions, they also held demonstrations in favor of two bills before the California state legislature that would create a state-run, single-payer health care system.
The first bill, the California Guaranteed Healthcare for All Act, Assembly Bill 1400, passed out of the legislature’s Assembly Health Committee in an 11-3 vote. The bill would do away with California’s for-profit health care system, removing private health insurance companies from the picture entirely. All Californians would switch to a new system. universal plan called “CalCare”This would reduce healthcare costs by eliminating overhead and profits from insurance companies and allowing providers to charge lower fees.
The bill’s outcome remains uncertain, as it would require passage of a separate funding plan outlining the largest state tax increase in history, estimated at $163 billion, which would need to be approved by voters in an amendment to the California constitution. The bills are not only being opposed by skeptical Democratic assembly members but also from powerful lobbyists for insurance companies and doctors. This comes as Governor Newsom unveiled his own $286-billion state budget plan that would allow undocumented people to sign up for Medi-Cal, the state’s health program for low-income Californians.
CNA President Cathy Kennedy backed the single-payer proposal for health care. Kennedy highlighted inequalities in health care access that were exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “This for-profit health care system has cost lives, all so that a few health insurance executives can line their pockets,” she told the GuardianLast week.
Kennedy also took issue with Governor Newsom and the CDPH, telling reporters during a press conference that the decision to allow infected nurses back to work “doesn’t make any sense, and it’s unconscionable. Eliminating isolation time and sending asymptomatic and exposed health care workers back to work will increase the risk of transmission, infection, hospitalizations, and death. By doing all of this, Governor Newsom and the CDPH are in effect guaranteeing more transmission…. Hospitals are supposed to be centers of healing, not centers of infection.”
NNU’s Triunfo-Cortez likewise pointed out that, at the start of the pandemic, the hospital industry in California petitioned Governor Newsom and CDPH to waive the state’s minimum nurse-to-patient ratio standards, rather than opting to hire additional staff. The waiver was rescindedShe says that this was after the California Nurses Association had pushed back. Yet, nurses in California continue to experience a staffing crisis even with the state’s stronger nurse-to-patient ratio regulations in place.
That’s why passage of the single-payer bills, nurses say, is so critical. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 11 would create a concrete package tax to pay for CalCare. This proposal sets the stage for the new proposal apart from the state’s failed 2017 single-payer proposal. Voters would have to approve the tax increases, which may not occur until 2024.
AB 1400 comes not only amid the Omicron surge, but also as more than 70 percent of the nation’s largest health insurers have ended COVID treatment cost waiversEven vaccinated patients can be subject to high-priced bills and financial ruin if they need treatment.
“We’re here to emphasize, as we enter the third year of this deadly pandemic, that [the current pandemic response] is not sustainable,” said CNA and NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo during last week’s press call. “Nurses that have already given our all, we’re running on beyond empty. We need our employers and our elected officials at the federal state and local levels to give us protections based on science, not just what’s good for business. Nurses have been saying all along that if hospital employers, our elected officials in the public, don’t do what we need to do to control this virus, there may not be a nurse to take care of you when you are in that hospital bed. And I want to … [emphasize] that that day is here.”