Our new "live with it" COVID strategy is devastating health care workers

So much for "essential" workers: Behind the mixed messaging on omicron, health care workers are paying the price

Published January 11, 2022 12:01PM (EST)

Overworked health care workers wearing protective face masks very sad sitting on the stairs (Getty Images/Juanmonino)
Overworked health care workers wearing protective face masks very sad sitting on the stairs (Getty Images/Juanmonino)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

Donald Trump may have lost the election, but his laissez-faire worldview that believes commerce takes precedence over protecting workers' health in the midst of a global pandemic has carried the day.

From the White House to City Hall, elected officials of both political parties are terrified of the American people's anger if they impose a mask mandate again, even as omicron infections surge and deaths creep up from their low points just months ago.

Consider the major drop in flu cases from the fall of 2020 through the end of January 2021, when most people wore masks most of the time. According to the CDC, it logged 1,316 flu cases during that period, compared to 130,000 cases the year before.

Even as our hospitals are overwhelmed, the consistent message from public health officials and political leaders is that the omicron variant is far less lethal than its predecessor and is likely to dissipate as fast as it spiked.

Here's the implicit reasoning: Why shut down a perfectly good economy to stop the spread of a virus, especially if the people most likely to die are the unvaccinated? They made their choice.

This worldview holds that what we have now is a "pandemic of the unvaccinated." But the "live with it" strategy gives short shrift to the toll this pandemic is taking on the health care workforce, as well as other essential workers who have to go to work amid the Omicron blizzard and risk getting sick, no matter what their vaccination status.

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They continue to lose sleep over whether or not they might bring the virus home, perhaps into a household with an infant not yet eligible for the vaccine virus, a family member with a pre-existing condition, or an elderly and vulnerable person. But in America, that's their problem.

Debbie White, a registered nurse and president of New Jersey's Health Professionals and Allied Employees, the state's largest union of nurses and health care professionals, said that as much as a quarter to a third of her state's health care workforce may have been sidelined already by the latest wave of COVID.

White said she was "appalled" that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, had not yet reimposed a mask mandate, especially since it is now well established that even fully vaccinated people can transmit the virus.

 "You see the general public walking around without masks like nothing is happening, business as usual," White said. "They've got no idea of what's going on in the health care system — and they won't, unless they have to enter it." She said she believes a new mask mandate "should have happened a month ago."

"I can tell you that the messaging I am hearing in the media is, basically, this is a mild variant, make sure you get your vaccine and your booster and that's it," she said. "And at an end of a commercial, 'Oh, and by the way, you should probably wear a mask to be safe.' I just don't hear a sense of urgency."

White said she understands the "effort to stay normal, whatever that is, and possibly to get this over and done with," but believes too much has been sacrificed, both in New Jersey and across the country. "We have allowed the health care system to be completely overwhelmed," she said, with public officials unwilling to take "decisive actions."

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In a recent interview with NJ Advance Media, Gov. Murphy, who recently took his family to Costa Rica despite a CDC COVID advisory, offered a more sanguine assessment. "We're gonna get through this," he told the news outlet.  "The omicron variant appears to be something that goes up literally like a straight line and when it breaks, it goes down pretty precipitously. And ultimately, it's going to get to a place where [the virus is] going to be among us, but we will be able to live what we would all think of as completely normal lives. And I do believe that is within our reach sooner rather than later."

White fears that may be overly optimistic. "We are going into our third year," she said. "We should have learned something by now. What was important in the very first surge of the pandemic was to protect the health care system. That's all we talked about: 'You have to limit the spread, flatten the curve.' We can't overwhelm the health care system, because if somebody goes into the hospital, they want to know there is a bed available and there is a hospital worker available.

"I don't see that happening now," she continued. "As one of my peers put it, I feel like I am living in an alternative universe."

The reality is that the position of White's union members and the entire "essential" workforce has never been more marginal than it is right now. First, the CDC lifted the universal mask mandate last May, saying that the vaccinated population could give up wearing masks. The unions that represent nurses and other frontline essential workers warned that this was a premature move in a country where tens of millions of people were still unvaccinated. They predicted the country was still vulnerable to a variant.

As we now know, they were right.

Last month, the CDC, apparently yielding to corporate America's concerns about a labor shortage, cut the COVID quarantine period in half, from 10 days to five, and with no requirement for a negative test result. That guidance was uniformly blasted by the nation's nursing unions as well as respected public health experts as ill-advised.

For front-line unions, the CDC's capitulation to business interests is merely one in a long line of examples of the agency's expedient disregard for workers. Early on, the CDC notoriously instructed nurses to ignore their training on infectious disease control and reuse their N-95 masks for days at a time.

At the time, the nurses' unions predicted three things would happen: Their members would get sick, many would die and hospitals would themselves become vectors for the virus. All three things happened.

On Jan. 6, the New York Times published a front-page story headlined "Fumbled Communications Cloud C.D.C. Covid Policy." (The archived online version has a different headline, focused on Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency's director.)

You had to read 17 paragraphs into the story to find the real lede, which was not about a poor communications strategy but a flawed policy: Health experts were almost universally critical of "the C.D.C.'s decision not to recommend a negative test before people with Covid end a five-day isolation." As the American Medical Association said in a statement, "The new recommendations of quarantine and isolation are not only confusing, but are risking further spread of the virus." 

It feels like the one consistent theme running through the entirety of the pandemic is just how expendable America's essential workers are to the power structure.

Throughout this entire 21st-century tribulation, the scarcity that nurtures American capitalism has repeatedly manifested itself and we've chosen to look away. From the lack of masks at the outset of the pandemic, to the more recent fiasco, with Americans lining up for COVID testing by the thousands, we've largely accepted this as what we deserve.

As this scarcity-informed response to the pandemic has become increasingly incoherent, the message we've heard from the corporate media is that it's time to "learn to live with COVID," a virus that's likely to kill close to one million Americans and leave millions more with unpredictable long-term illness or disability. 

Of course that's how the managerial class, which works remotely from literally anywhere, would choose to frame it: Let's just get on with it. Economic stagnation is worse than death, especially if you are in the class least likely to die or be disabled serving others.

Thanks to the Guardian and Kaiser Health News, we know that in the first year of the pandemic at least 3,600 health care workers died fighting the pandemic. But we have no clear idea of the total number of health care workers and other essential workers who have died as a consequence of this virus, and as a country we are in no hurry to find out. Even now, employers are fighting worker compensation claims from those who answered the call to serve us and paid the price

Is it any wonder that 4.5 million people left their job last November? In fact, from Sept. 1 through Nov. 30 of last year, 13.1 million people quit their jobs — a larger number than the 12.5 million workers represented by the unions that make up the AFL-CIO. This should hardly be news, but America simply doesn't have essential workers' backs. 

Read more on health care in the COVID era:

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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Commentary Covid-19 Essential Workers Health Care Insider Nj Labor New Jersey Pandemic