Healthcare Workers Feel the Lash of Letting COVID Rip

Governor Murphy, First Lady Tammy Murphy, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, Whoopi Goldberg, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Reverend Melvin Wilson, and the Office of East Orange Mayor Ted Green participate in a “Grateful for the Shot” Vaccination Event in East Orange on Friday, May 14th,

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 in 2021 when we were wearing masks. According to the CDC, it logged 1,316 flu cases during that period, compared to 130,000 cases over the year before.

Even as our hospitals are overwhelmed, the messaging is that the latest variant from South Africa is far less lethal than its predecessor and is likely to dissipate as fast as it spiked.

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. After all, this world view mistakenly believes what we have now is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

But what this ‘live with it’ worldview gives short shrift to is the toll this pandemic is taking on the healthcare workforce as well as other essential workers who have to work out in the Omicron blizzard and risk getting sick no matter what their vaccination status.

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

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

White said she was “appalled” that Gov. Murphy had not yet re-imposed a max mandate, especially since it is now well established that even the fully vaccinated can transmit the deadly virus.

 “You see the general public walking around without masks like nothing is happening-business as usual-they’ve got no idea of what’s going on in the healthcare system and they won’t unless they have to enter it,” White said.

White believes the mask mandate “should have happened a month ago.”

“I don’t know what happened, but I can tell you 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.”

She continued.  “In an effort to stay normal, whatever that is, and possibly to get this over and done with, we have allowed the healthcare system to be completely overwhelmed” without Gov. Murphy taking any “decisive actions.”

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 very sanguine assessment of the raging pandemic.

“We’re gonna get through this,” Murphy 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.”

“We are going into our third year,” White said. “We should have learned something by now. What was important in the very first surge of the pandemic was to protect the healthcare system. That’s all we talked about. You have to limit the spread, flatten the curve because we can’t overwhelm the healthcare system simply because if somebody goes into the hospital, they want to know there is a bed available and there is a hospital worker available.”

White continued. “I don’t see that happening now. 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 members and the entire essential workforce has never been more marginal than it is right now.

First, the CDC betrayed them by lifting the universal mask mandate back in May, when the agency said that the vaccinated population could give up wearing their mask. The unions that represent nurses and other frontline essential workers rightly warned it 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.

It was.

Then last month, the CDC, faced with corporate Americans concerns about a labor shortage, cut in half the COVID quarantine from ten to five days without requiring a negative test. The 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 kowtowing to business interests is merely one in a long line of examples of the CDC’s expedient disregard for workers. Early on, the nation’s leading public health agency 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 the hospitals would themselves become vectors for the virus. All three things happened.

On January 6, the New York Times published a front-page story headlined “Fumbled Communications Cloud C.D.C. Covid Policy-Biden Team Praised for Sound Decisions but Criticized for Confusing the Public.”

You had to read 17 paragraphs into the story to find the real lede. Any higher up and it would have upended the headline that struggled mightily to spare the Biden White House the full weight of what the CDC had wrought.

“The new recommendations of quarantine and isolation are not only confusing, but are risking further spread of the virus,” the American Medical Association said in a statement, the paper reported.

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, to the more recent fiasco with COVID testing with hundreds of thousands of Americans lining up, including many essential workers, for a test, we’ve just accepted it as what we deserve.

As this scarcity informed American response to the pandemic became increasingly incoherent, we heard from the corporate news media ‘it’s time to just learn to live with COVID’, a virus that’s likely to kill close to one million Americans and disable several million more.

Of course, that’s the way the managerial class that works remotely and rules the world would 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 healthcare workers died fighting the pandemic. But while in combat we fixate on our body count, when it comes to something like the pandemic there’s little stomach for keeping track.

We have no idea how many healthcare workers and other essential workers have died as a consequence of this pandemic and as a county we are in no hurry to find out. Even now, employers are fighting worker compensation claims from those that answered the call to serve us.

Any wonder 4.5 million left their job in November. In fact, in September, October and November 13.1 million people quit their job. That’s a half-million more than the 12.5 million represented by the unions that make up the AFL-CIO.

Our government just doesn’t have essential workers’ backs.

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