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Washington Watch: The CDC’s Rollback of Covid-19 Mask and Distancing Rules Earns a Rebuke From Nurses

National Nurses United, the union that represents frontline health care workers nationwide, says the move endangers nurses and patients.

Washington Watch: The CDC’s Rollback of Covid-19 Mask and Distancing Rules Earns a Rebuke From Nurses

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that it was radically altering its Covid-19 guidance to say that people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks, avoid crowds, and isolate after exposure to the virus.

A lot of state and local officials, who have struggled to maintain mask mandates as vaccination programs continue, were upset by the CDC’s haste.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is defending the move.

But the nurses who have to take care of those who get sick say it was a bad call by the agency.

“This newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country,” says National Nurses United Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, RN. “Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the CDC has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century.”

Speaking on behalf of a union 170,000 members nationwide, Castillo says she is worried that “CDC issued this new guidance even though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration emergency temporary standard mandated by President Biden’s January 21 executive order has been delayed for two months. This lack of protection compounds the dangers that nurses and other essential workers continue to face on the job.”

Here are the concerns that NNU leaders say they have with the change in approach by the CDC:

  • A continued high number of Covid cases in the United States, with more than 35,000 new detected infections reported each day, and more than 600 people dying from Covid each day. [On May 13, 2021,] 780 people died from Covid-19.
  • Circulation of Covid variants of concern that are more transmissible, deadlier, and may already be or may become vaccine resistant.
  • Unanswered questions about vaccines. Nurses emphasize that it’s unclear how well vaccines prevent asymptomatic and mild COVID infections, how well vaccines prevent transmission of the virus, and how long protection from vaccines will last.
  • The CDC announced that it would no longer be tracking infections among fully vaccinated people unless they result in hospitalization or death. This means that the CDC is no longer tracking data necessary to understand whether vaccines prevent asymptomatic/mild infections, how long vaccine protection may last, and to understand how variants impact vaccine protection.
  • The CDC “recognized” scientific evidence on aerosol transmission but refused to update guidance based on science. Nurses say the CDC needs to fully recognize aerosol transmission and update its Covid guidance accordingly to prioritize measures that prevent and reduce aerosol transmission (ventilation, respiratory protection, testing to identify asymptomatic cases). “If the CDC had fully recognized the science on how this deadly virus is transmitted, this new guidance would never have been issued,” said NNU President Jean Ross, RN.
  • Preventing and reducing transmission of Covid requires multiple layers of protective measures. Nurses say this includes masks, distancing, and avoiding crowds and large gatherings—in addition to vaccines. Importantly, it also includes protecting nurses and other frontline workers from workplace exposure to the virus. Vaccines are only one important component of a robust, public health infection control program. “All of our protective measures should remain in place, in addition to vaccines. This pandemic is not over,” said NNU President Deborah Burger, RN. “Nurses follow the precautionary principle, which means that until we know for sure something is safe, we use the highest level of protections, not the lowest. The CDC is putting lives at risk with this latest guidance.”
  • The recent guidelines are unjust and will disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous and otherwise nonwhite people. “There has been so much inequity in the vaccine rollout and racial inequity in who is a frontline worker put most at risk by this guidance. The impact of the CDC’s guidance update will be felt disproportionately by workers of color and their families and communities,” said NNU President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN.

Cortez says concerns about the new CDC guidance highlight the need for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) on infectious diseases. “If OSHA does not issue a Covid ETS immediately,” she warns, “we will undoubtedly see more unnecessary, preventable infections and deaths, as well as long Covid cases among nurses and other frontline workers.”