As COVID-19 cases and deaths of health workers mount, a group of the country’s leading health professionals associations are calling on state governors to enact and enforce stronger protections for workers in health care settings.
Eleven leading health organizations – which collectively represent tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, and others who work in the county’s coronavirus-besieged hospitals and clinics – have issued a joint letter to the nation’s governors, pressing them to take up urgent, universal, and enforceable protections for workers in health care settings.
The joint letter reads:
“This pandemic has already claimed the lives of more than 160,000 people in the United States, and infection rates are rising again. We must protect workers in health care facilities caring for patients with COVID-19 across this country. We, the undersigned medical and public health associations and organizations, urge the National Governors Association and governors across the United States to take up urgent, universal, and enforceable protections for workers in health care settings in your states. Now is the time to act.”
The joint letter calls on states to implement and enforce standards to mandate the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), produce clear procedures for social distancing and hygiene practices, and enhance whistleblower protections to safeguard health workers’ ability to raise the alarm about dangerous conditions or PPE shortages without fear of discrimination or retribution.
The joint letter is signed by: American Medical Students Association, American Medical Women’s Association, American Muslim Health Professionals, American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, Doctors for America, National Medical Association, National Nurse Alliance of SEIU Healthcare, Physicians for Human Rights (convener), Society of Behavioral Medicine, and Society of General Internal Medicine.
“With the federal government asleep at the wheel and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) abdicating its responsibilities, it’s now up to the states to protect the health workers who protect all of us from COVID-19,” said Dr. Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, medical director of Physicians for Human Rights and professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan. “It’s not enough to just offer praise or applause for heroic health workers. Governors should walk the talk and pass meaningful standards to ensure that workers in health care settings can be safe while they save lives.”
More than 900 health workers in the United States have died of COVID-19, according to a new analysis by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian.
“It is very disappointing that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has declined to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect all workers who continue to go to work during the pandemic from exposure to COVID-19,” said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director at the American Public Health Association. “With this protection needed more than ever, we are now urging governors under the leadership of the National Governors Association to take up this mantle to implement state-level mandatory, enforceable standards for worker protections in health settings that address personal protective equipment, washing and sanitation, and transparency of information, among other issues. In our collective efforts to combat COVID-19, it is critical that we do all we can to protect these frontline workers, their families, and their communities.”
With health workers of color twice as likely to contract COVID-19 as their white counterparts, governors must combat structural racism within and beyond the health care sector.
“We call upon governors to link arms and form a shield of protection against COVID-19 across the 50 states in service to African-Americans and people made vulnerable by racism, occupation, living environment, and discrimination,” said Leon McDougle, MD, MPH, 121st president of the National Medical Association.
The joint letter highlights promising models for states to emulate. In June, Virginia proposed the country’s first-ever pandemic emergency workplace safety standards, a necessary response to OSHA’s neglect of its own duty to protect health workers. The new state regulations include mandatory guidelines for PPE, sanitation, and other workplace safety guidance, as well as protections from retaliation for health workers who speak out about safety concerns. The joint letter urges states to build on a California model for protecting workers in health care settings:
“We strongly recommend that state-level health worker protections build on the model of the 2009 California OSHA Aerosol Transmissible Disease Standards to set clear standards for social distancing; face masks; hand sanitizing, washing, and gloves; regular workplace disinfection; increased ventilation; and notification of infections, among other key provisions. These standards must also be accompanied by protection from discrimination, intimidation, or dismissal of health workers for speaking out in the face of dangerous conditions to management, co-workers, the government, or the public. Likewise, health workers should not face retribution for bringing additional personal protection to work when employers are unable to provide adequate PPE.”
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.