On Thursday, members of National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the country, staged a protest just yards away from the White House, petitioning the government to support healthcare workers who are continuing to treat coronavirus patients without proper protective gear. Clad in red shirts and wearing face masks, they stood among 80 pairs of rubber white clogs, each pair symbolizing a colleague who died while fighting the deadly pandemic.
They read the names of the dead out loud.
“We ask you to imagine the nurse who would have walked in these shoes,” Stephanie Sims, a registered nurse from Washington, D.C. said, according to the Washington Post. “Know that these shoes stand for someone who woke up in the morning—or maybe in the afternoon or the middle of the night—who pulled on their scrubs, kissed their children or other loved ones goodbye and headed to work, knowing they were walking into danger.”
As the Post reports, when the nurses held a similar protest two weeks ago, they had 45 names on their list.
The union wanted to honor their colleagues during National Nurses Week, when many across the country were praising their efforts to care for hundreds of thousands of Americans sick with the virus. But praise and recognition aren’t sufficient; what they need, these nurses emphasized, is protection.
And the fact that they haven’t gotten it, months into the virus spreading across the U.S., is a systemic failure. While the nurses were protesting outside the White House, they made it clear that President Donald Trump wasn’t the only person to blame.
“How many of these nurses worked in hospitals that were long on patients but short on N95 respirators?” Sims asked during the protest. “How many of these nurses were failed by chaotic and haphazard protocols which left them vulnerable to exposure and illness? How many of these nurses died because this administration, this Congress, our elected officials, our government agencies failed to act, to lead and to protect them?”
The demonstration is just the latest plea for proper protection and improved working conditions from essential workers across the country. Amazon workers made news early on in the pandemic, decrying the lack of adequate sanitation and cleaning in fulfillment warehouses (a top exec recently resigned from the company, citing Amazon’s “chickenshit” response to the protests). Public transportation workers nationwide have similarly lobbied for personal protective equipment (PPE) as thousands of bus drivers, subway operators, and sanitation workers have become infected with the coronavirus. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, one Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker who recently contracted COVID-19 laid it bare: “We are not essential, we are sacrificial.”
In the nation’s hospitals, more than 9,000 healthcare workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Post reports, citing figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of a widespread lack of testing, those numbers are believed to be lower than the true number of infections, the paper notes.
For weeks, nursing and healthcare unions, alongside state lawmakers and activists, have called upon the federal government to ramp up efforts to give them PPE. This includes demanding Trump enforce the Defense Production Act in order to mass-produce more N96 respirator masks, the Post reports. The masks, due to their ability to filter fine particles, help prevent the spread of the virus.
In an interview with CNN, Jean Ross, president of National Nurses United, said she wanted action, not rhetoric.
“You talk about how essential, how needed, how grateful you are, and yet you throw us to the wolves,” Ross said. “You throw us out onto a battlefield without armor.”
“We are not getting what we need. We have not seen the worst of it yet,” she warned. “We are so afraid.”