Unions are horrified at the mask mandate rollback — and fear workers' lives are at risk again

Unions that rep frontline workers say they'll pay the price for a policy that forces them to play "vaccine police"

Published May 29, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)

Yellow cab taxi drivers block traffic in a protest demanding debt forgiveness for cabbies hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, in New York City on February 10, 2021. - New York City taxi cab drivers held a day of action calling for debt forgiveness for loss of income amid work shortage due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
Yellow cab taxi drivers block traffic in a protest demanding debt forgiveness for cabbies hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, in New York City on February 10, 2021. - New York City taxi cab drivers held a day of action calling for debt forgiveness for loss of income amid work shortage due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

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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.

We know that at least 115,000 health care workers have been killed globally by COVID and the spectacular failure of infection control which has meant their families and neighborhoods also paid a price.

Here in the U.S. there's no official government registry of healthcarae workers that passed away of COVID-19. A joint reporting project by the Guardian and Kaiser Health News found that more than 3,600 healthcare workers died from COVID-19 — with 700 of those from New Jersey and New York.

The government's cavalier response to this catastrophic death toll is eerily reminiscent of other comparable historical incidents in which workers were treated as dispoable; for instance, when the Pentagon staged above-ground atomic bomb testing which exposed American soldiers to radiation. The Pentagon justified it as just a cost of doing business.

The ripple effects of healthcare workers' deaths extend beyond these tens of thousands of graves, and will be generational in consequence for the lucky survivors.

On April 6, the medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry published a study of more than 230,000 medical records of surviving COVID patients that indicated one in three COVID-19 survivors were diagnosed with 14 different neurological or psychiatric conditions within six months of their infection.

"Thirty-four percent of survivors were diagnosed with at least one of these conditions, with 13 percent of these people being their first recorded neurological or psychiatric diagnosis," reported Yahoo News. "Mental-health diagnoses were most common among patients, with 17 percent diagnosed with anxiety and 14 percent diagnosed with a mood disorder."

Consider the finding by the New York the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, a non-profit, that 250,000 essential workers in New York state were sidelined by the virus, with another 150,000 experiencing an asymptomatic infection, which health experts warn may have long-term health consequences as described by Lancet Psychiatry.

Ignoring the lived experience of medical professionals and their unions is not just something we do here in the US.

In Japan, the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association (TMPA), which represents 6,000 medical professionals, recently sent a dire warning to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, and Olympic officials, noting that their country was already in the midst of its fourth and worst spike yet of the virus.

"Viruses are spread by people's movements," wrote the TMPA. "Japan will hold a heavy responsibility if the Olympics and Paralympics work to worsen the pandemic, increasing the number of those who must suffer and die."

The sobering lette continued:

"The medical systems responding to COVID-19 are stretched thin, almost to their limits. The reality is that the entire medical system faces an almost insurmountable hardship in trying our best to respond with coronavirus measures…The doctors and nurses of the medical system who are being asked to respond are already at this point exhausted, and there is absolutely no extra manpower or facility for treatment."

Healthcare workers in Japan are under tremendous strain. As the Guardian reported, "a recent poll by a national hospital workers' union found that more than half of nurses working in Japanese coronavirus wards had considered leaving the profession, with many citing stress, fatigue and fear of infection." 

According to the Guardian, the response to the local public health call for cancelation by the IOC was an "insistence that 'sacrifices' must be made to ensure the Games go ahead in Tokyo regardless of the coronavirus situation in Japan" that "sparked a backlash and more calls for them to be cancelled.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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