Unions are horrified at the mask mandate rollback — and fear workers’ lives are at risk again
Taken from Salon.com
By Bob Hennelly
May 29, 2021
On May 13, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted the indoor mask mandate for people who say they are vaccinated. Individually, many of those who were vaccinated celebrated the news at what seemed like a step towards a pre-pandemic normalcy. Yet public health experts and unions alike were horrified.
In a May 17 tweet, the New York State Nurses Association, which represents 40,000 Registered Nurses, warned “the rushed CDC mask guidance is a rollback on patients’ & workers’ protections across the country. The path to stop the virus is more than the vaccine alone. This guidance will push communities to remove their masks sooner than recommended — risking lives.”
Indeed, the unions that represent healthcare professionals and essential frontline workers are speaking out about the CDC’s walkback on masks. These workers, they say, have paid for and will continue to pay for the nation’s scandalous lack of preparation for this totally foreseeable event.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, also blasted the CDC’s new guidance, saying it would force retail workers to play “vaccination police” to sort out which customers needed to wear masks.
The union stated: “Since March 1, UFCW reports a nearly 35-percent increase in grocery-worker deaths and a nearly 30 percent increase in grocery workers infected or exposed following supermarket outbreaks at Whole Foods, Costco, Trader Joe’s and other chains across the country.”
The union estimated at least 185 grocery workers and 132 meatpacking workers have died from the virus, with tens of thousands of other union members infected or exposed, incurring potential long-term health risks.
A key concern among unions is that in the neighborhoods of color hardest hit by the coronavirus, where a large portion of the essential workforce resides, the rate of vaccination is well below the 50 percent threshold found in whiter, more-affluent areas.
During a May 19 press briefing, epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder echoed the New York State Nurses Association’s concerns about the rollback of the indoor-mask mandate. She told reporters the CDC should have coordinated the shift in guidance with “stakeholders” including labor unions and the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
She was sharply critical of the CDC’s decision to rely on the “honor system” when it came to waiving the mask and social-distancing requirements for those that are vaccinated.
“You need to take into consideration other questions: for example, how can you be sure somebody has truly been vaccinated?” she said. “There’s a reason somebody goes into a bar and we card them when they want to buy alcohol.”
Dr. Gounder also noted that “some of those who have been most resistant to wearing a mask are also those who unfortunately may be most resistant to getting vaccinated right now. And so that does really pose a risk to other people.”
According to the former Biden administration COVID advisor, slightly more than one in four Black Americans are vaccinated, with the rate for Hispanics just a few percentage points higher. She maintained that the CDC should have waited for the vaccination rate in communities of color to hit the 50 percent mark before rolling back the requirements.
“It is the duty of public health not to just look out for the individual, but the population and specifically the most vulnerable among us,” Dr. Gounder said at press briefing held after the CDC rollback.
Throughout this pandemic, the political and commercial interests have ignored the warnings from health care unions and then failed to admit when the union predictions came to pass.
It was the nurse unions that warned the CDC’s watering down of workplace protections that require the disposal of N-95 masks after each encounter with a patient — done to stretch personal protective equipment inventory — would result in nurses dying and the hospitals where they worked becoming vectors for the virus.
Both things happened. Yet even now, we continue to ignore what these professionals we supposedly honor.
In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy, who had originally resisted following the CDC mask reset, fell into line on May 23 when he told reporters that he was concerned that New Jersey businesses would lose money because residents would choose to cross the Hudson or Delaware to patronize businesses in neighboring states where there was no longer an indoor mask requirement.
Debbie White, a registered nurse and president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, New Jersey’s largest healthcare union, had initially praised Murphy’s holding off and keeping the indoor mask mandate in place.
In an interview, before Murphy’s reversal, she said her members will yet again pay the price for expedient CDC guidance.
“It is so alarming because you know it is on the honor system,” White said. “We have no way to prove [people are vaccinated]. There’s no tracking device that you can scan.”
White added that politicians are caving in on the mandate “just because people are just so afraid of losing business, even though it puts food workers and frontline worker at risk again.”
White says her union has lost at least seven members to the virus, but that the failure of hospitals to be transparent she really has no way of discerning the actual number. That’s important, she says, to be able to flag the failures in infection control to better prepare for the next pandemic.
“We have kept track in our state and across the country of so many different groups where there are outbreaks—we’ve kept track of Little League teams and communities where there were outbreaks that occurred, but it is not an accident we have not tracked data for health care workers,” White said.
Even after New Jersey passed a law earlier this year requiring hospitals be more transparent, White says some are resisting.
“This will trump asbestos for healthcare workers,” she predicted.