May 16, 2020
Dear President Trump,
Today marks 100 days since the first documented death related to COVID-19 in the United States.[i] Since then, the United States has reported roughly 1.4 million cases of COVID-19 and registered nearly 85,000 deaths related to the disease.
For more than 30 years, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has worked at the intersection of medicine, science, and law to protect human rights and prevent violations. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have worked with thousands of doctors, nurses, clinicians, and concerned citizens to strengthen the world’s response to COVID-19, and to better prepare for what lies ahead.
At this 100-day mark, we are writing to express our deep concern around these staggering numbers and your administration’s alarming handling of this pandemic. We urge you to implement the following key measures with respect to some of the most pressing issues in this ongoing crisis at the moment.
1) Adopt a science-based approach and transparent process to reopening the country’s economy
Release the full and complete CDC guidance on how to safely reopen during the coronavirus pandemic
PHR is gravely concerned that the medical, public health, and scientific expertise has been undercut and sidelined throughout this crisis. At this 100-day benchmark, this problem has only become exacerbated as reports indicate that your administration has disregarded and kept hidden guidance coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to responsibly reopen the country. While the CDC has since released a “checklist” for reopening, the dismissal of such critical expert advice represents an enormous breach of public trust that sends a chilling signal to the American people. We urge you to put medical, public health, and scientific expertise at the forefront of the U.S. response by immediately releasing the CDC’s full analysis and recommendations and making public health guidance the centerpiece of your administration’s plan for reopening the country.
2) Ensure health workers are fully informed and free from unreasonable restrictions
Direct OSHA to promote accountability for workplace protection for health workers
Health workers have the right to access transparent and accurate information about the coronavirus threat level and associated health impacts in their community, as well as to speak out in certain situations when safety is threatened. However, numerous health workers who have raised or shared safety concerns have faced formal warnings, reassignment, suspension, or even termination. We urge your administration to institute increased whistleblower protections to guard against threats, as well as to direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a mandatory and enforceable federal temporary emergency standard to protect health workers and swiftly address the complaints that have stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic.
3) Ensure health workers have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE)
Build a national stockpile of key equipment and ensure equitable distribution for any potential additional outbreaks
All health workers must have proper resources and conditions to address the COVID-19 emergency, including adequate training, personal protective equipment, medical equipment, and testing kits, among other supplies. To this end, we urge your administration to fully activate the Defense Production Act to produce all needed supplies. This emergency production should continue throughout the crisis to meet ongoing demands, and build a national strategic stockpile of such equipment, which should be distributed equitably during any possible resurgence of the virus and other future pandemics.
4) Stop using COVID-19 as a pretext to target refugees and asylum seekers
Rescind Rule 42 CFR 71, which shuts down U.S. borders and lacks a basis in public health
On March 20, your administration announced a rule and accompanying order that purport to empower it to immediately turn back asylum seekers at U.S. borders without affording them any legal process. This rule has since been extended until May 21. On May 13, leaked reports indicated that your administration is considering instating this rule indefinitely, or until the coronavirus “no longer poses a threat” to the United States – a logic that seems to contradict your administration’s current position that the country is ready to reopen. We urge you to rescind your policy of shutting the border and reinstate the right to seek asylum in the United States – with the guidance and involvement of public health, refugee assistance, and medical professionals – to protect our collective public health.
5) Protect communities who are at particularly high risk of contracting COVID-19
Direct ICE to release immigrant detainees
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) registered its first COVID-19-related death on May 6 at Otay Mesa Detention Center in California. Thousands of doctors, public health experts, advocates, and even the former acting head of ICE have been sounding the alarm for months about the grave risks of holding people in immigration detention amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, today, more than 29,000 people are still in immigration detention, with no meaningful ability to practice the social distancing or meticulous hygiene required to prevent infection. We urge your administration to direct ICE to release all detainees – who pose no threat to the community – on humanitarian and public health grounds so they can safely shelter in place in community-based alternatives to detention to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 in detention centers.
6) Contribute constructively to the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic
Re-engage with the global community and support the Global Response Summit
Given the nature of this pandemic and the position of the United States as one of the most scientifically advanced nations in the world, your administration must mitigate the crisis beyond its own borders. Instead of weakening the capacity for multilateral collaboration and action, such as withdrawing funds from the World Health Organization, the United States should prove itself a global player by engaging in robust information-sharing on transmission rates, effective mitigation, vaccine developments, and immunity, as well as to ensure equal access to the global supply chain of medical equipment and treatment. In this regard, the United States should re-engage with its allies who co-hosted the Global Response Summit on May 4 and work to ensure the development and equitable distribution of COVID-19 diagnostics, therapies, and vaccines.
Mr. President, as medical and human rights experts, we outline these recommendations to combat the COVID-19 pandemic to try to curb this surge in cases. Over just 100 days, the number of deaths related to COVID-19 in the United States has catapulted from one to 85,000, and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases soared from 11 to nearly 1.4 million. We are deeply unsettled about what the forthcoming days may bring the United States. To overcome this crisis and prepare for the future, PHR urges your administration to place medical, public health, and scientific expertise at the forefront of the U.S. response, with immediate attention to the measures outlined above and future recommendations from the medical and scientific community. We look forward to monitoring their implementation.
Physicians for Human Rights