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Stop calling nurses heroes — protect our lives instead, says the leader of America's largest nurses union

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  • Bonnie Castillo, RN, is executive director of National Nurses United, the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the United States, with more than 150,000 members.
  • Castillo says the federal government has failed to properly protect and support frontline workers.
  • Of the four COVID-19 legislative packages passed, none has earmarked funds for healthcare worker personal protective equipment.
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Today is International Nurses Day, which happens to fall during the World Health Organization's "International Year of the Nurse and Midwife" and at the culmination of Nurses' Week in the United States. While this nexus of nurse-centric calendar dates should be a day of great honor for nurses, hundreds of my colleagues from around the world, who were caring for their patients and spending time with their families just a few short months ago, will not be here to see it.
They will not be here to see it because they have lost their lives on the front lines of COVID-19 — and not just by succumbing to the virus, but also due to a complete disregard for their health and safety by governments and employers.
As of yesterday, more than 100 registered nurses in the United States — including six members of my union, National Nurses United — have passed away. Noel Sinkiat will miss his dream retirement motorcycle trip. Celia Yap Banago won't make it to a celebration marking her 40-year-anniversary at her hospital. Karla Dominguez's pediatric patients, or her "kids" as she called them, are now without their registered nurse "mom." Jeff Baumbach will no longer be sharing any life lessons with his daughter, and Helen Gbodi and Paul Anthony Camagay will never again care for their patients.
Bonnie Castillo, RN
Nurses in America have been fighting since January for optimal personal protective equipment (PPE) because we never wanted to list off our dead colleagues. It's May, and we still don't have that PPE in our hands. So we have spent our Nurses Week in America standing up at events all across the country, from a protest at the White House on May 7, to a 1,000-nurse online vigil in honor of our fallen colleagues tonight, May 12, on International Nurses Day.
Our federal government is failing us, and we demand change. There have been four COVID-19 legislative packages passed, and Congress has not earmarked any funds for healthcare worker PPE in any of those packages. In our profit-driven healthcare system, nurses know our corporate health care employers direct money toward their bottom line, not toward a safe workplace. So we demand that COVID-19 funding go toward protecting nurses and healthcare workers so we can protect our patients, not toward protecting hospital profits, at the expense of our lives.
We also demand that President Donald Trump fully invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up production for badly needed PPE, which he has still not done. And we call on the Occupational Safety and Health administration to pass an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases (to mandate that our employers give us the highest level of protections) and the CDC to strengthen its guidelines for health care facilities, not keep weakening them.
Nurses also need to protect our families. Some of us have moved into RVs or hotel rooms to protect our loved ones from exposure to COVID-19, given our lack of protections at work. We demand employers that haven't done so already cover housing and childcare costs for nurses. We have also been told to use our sick and vacation time to cover time off for COVID-19 infections we contracted at work. We demand that our COVID-19 infections are automatically eligible for workers' compensation.
And the public health infrastructure in this country must be strengthened to include sufficient staffing, supplies, and space for robust surveillance, testing, case isolation, and contact tracing to ensure that the virus is effectively contained.
Tonight, we will pay tribute to our fellow nurses who have died on the front lines of COVID-19 (we invite the public to join us for a livestream of our vigil at National Nurses United's Facebook page).
But honoring the dead is not enough. To quote labor activist Mother Jones, we must also "fight like hell for the living." To that end, we invite people across the country to stand with us and take action in helping us achieve our demands by visiting protectnurses.org.
In this year, week and day that is dedicated to nurses, we demand our employers and government stop calling us "heroes," and instead act to protect our lives. Platitudes are meaningless — and even insulting — without protections.
Bonnie Castillo, RN, is executive director of National Nurses United, the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the United States, with more than 150,000 members.
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