The area across the street from the White House was covered in candles last Thursday night as dozens of nurses held a vigil to honor all the providers we’ve lost to the pandemic. The activists that gathered in the square talked about the challenges of working as a nurse in the current healthcare system, while calling on the government to do more to protect nurses.
Lighting Up D.C.
The nurses lit 481 candles, each representing a nurse that lost their life to COVID-19. Despite all the struggles they’ve faced over the last couple years, the scene outside the White House was surprisingly calm and joyous. The nurses shared poems, songs, and personal stories from their time on the front lines. The group said many of these deaths were preventable if nurses had more protections from the government and the for-profit healthcare facilities they serve.
“When our workplaces aren’t safe, nurses leaves, nurses get sick. And as these candles demonstrate, nurses die,” said Julia Truelove, an ICU registered nurse in Washington, D.C. “We’re here to say there is no nursing shortage, there is a shortage of workers willing to work under these nightmarish conditions.”
Truelove and her colleagues came out with a clear list of demands.
“We’re advocating for two main actions the federal government needs to take to help us be safe at work,” she said. “The first is for OSHA to pass a permanent COVID standard which means that going forward, our employers are held accountable for keeping us safe with optimum precautions at work. The second is for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to base their guidance on the best science and the best public health, not just what is best for business,” she said.
Many nurses have taken issue with the fact that they’re now being asked to return to work even if they still test positive for COVID-19.
“The CDC is now telling us that if we’re COVID positive we can come back to work no problem. That’s unsafe for nurses, it’s unsafe for our patients, it’s unsafe for our coworkers,” said Truelove.
For nurses like Truelove, the workload has become nearly unbearable.
“I have to work tomorrow, I have to work tomorrow morning, I’d like to be at home,” Truelove said, after taking multiple 12-hour shifts during the week. “But I know that someone has to be here and someone has to stand up right now for nurses from across the country that can’t be here, so I’m happy to be here to represent those nurses who are fighting in their communities but yes, it’s an extra burden because the government isn’t doing it.”
She doesn’t have the luxury of staying home if she doesn’t feel like coming to work.
“Nurses will always fight to be by our patient’s sides but when we are sick, when we are driven away from the profession, or worst of all when we are lost to this world for good, who will be left to care for the patients,” Truelove said. “Nurses are not expendable. We cannot afford for one more nurse’s life to go out due to preventable causes.”
Many nurses have started organizing through local unions rather than reaching out to management, including National Nurses United, which is now one of the fastest-growing labor unions in the country with nearly 175,000 members worldwide.
The union recently urged 21 U.S. senators, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to write a letter to President Biden asking him to issue a permanent COVID-19 OSHA standard for healthcare workers.
“It is critical that the federal government ensures that nurses and other healthcare workers are getting the protections we need to do our jobs safely, without putting ourselves or our families at risk of Covid exposure,” said NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN.
“We can’t safely care for our patients if we are sick ourselves,” Castillo added. “We thank Senator Gillibrand, Leader Schumer, and every senator who signed this letter, for standing in solidarity with nurses across the country, and for fighting for the protections that we need to do our jobs safely during this pandemic. The Biden Administration must quickly issue a final permanent Covid-19 health care standard—and retain the emergency temporary standard until the permanent standard goes into effect—before one more nurse is sidelined, lost to the profession, or lost to this world for good.”