The largest nurses’ union in the United States is calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revoke the guidance on mask-wearing and social distancing that the agency released last week, calling the significantly scaled-back guidelines “dangerous” as the U.S. and other countries continue to face the coronavirus pandemic and new variants of Covid-19.
National Nurses United (NNU) circulated a petition over the weekend, gathering signatures of Americans who were confused and alarmed by the CDC’s new guidance, soon after the union released a statement condemning public health authorities for recommending that fully vaccinated people stop wearing masks and social distancing in most situations.
“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,” said Bonnie Castillo, executive director of NNU and a registered nurse. “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.”
The union expressed particular concern for how the new guidance would leave public-facing workers including grocery store employees and healthcare workers vulnerable, as business establishments will have no way of making sure unmasked people are vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“People have been asking us, ‘I don’t understand. How am I going to know if the person next to me is not masked because they’re fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated, refuse to be vaccinated, have conditions that don’t allow them to be vaccinated?'” said Jean Ross, co-president of NNU, in a video the group released Sunday. “Well, we share that confusion.”
The CDC advised last Thursday that “vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,” noting that masking still applies to people who are traveling by plane or other public transportation.
“People have been asking us, ‘I don’t understand. How am I going to know if the person next to me is not masked because they’re fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated, refuse to be vaccinated, have conditions that don’t allow them to be vaccinated?’ Well, we share that confusion.” —Jean Ross, NNU
NNU called on the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to immediately issue emergency temporary standards (ETS) on infectious diseases, allowing workplaces to take extra precautions to protect their employees, including healthcare workers.
“CDC issued this new guidance even though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) emergency temporary standard mandated by President Biden’s Jan. 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,” Castillo said.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, 158 grocery store workers had died of the virus as of mid-April, and at least 35,100 workers have been infected or exposed.
Shortly after the CDC’s announcement on Thursday, grocery and retail chains including Walmart, Publix, and Costco said they would lift mask mandates for people who are vaccinated—despite having no way to determine who has or hasn’t received a vaccine.
“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 co-president Zenei Triunfo-Cortez.
NNU denounced the CDC for failing to “fully recognize” how the coronavirus is spread—through aerosol transmission—and called on officials to “prioritize measures that prevent and reduce aerosol transmission (ventilation, respiratory protection, testing to identify asymptomatic cases).”
Under the new guidance, the CDC said it will no longer ask people to get tested for Covid-19 or to quarantine after a known exposure if they are asymptomatic. The guidelines follow a shift in strategy earlier this month in which the agency is no longer tracking “breakthrough” infections—those that affect people who are fully vaccinated—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,” said NNU.
The union noted that the guidance was released as “variants of concern” are circulating in the U.S. and around the world, leading to fears that the virus could become more transmissible. Last week the World Health Organization (WHO) designated B.1.617, which was first detected in India late last year, as a variant of global concern.
WHO is still studying the variant’s transmissibility and the response of coronavirus antibodies in people who have been vaccinated.
“This pandemic is not over,” said NNU co-president Deborah Burger. “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.”
NNU was not alone in expressing alarm at the CDC’s about-face. Last week the New York Times reported that hundreds of epidemiologists who have been interviewed by the newspaper recently about the precautions they’ve taken during the pandemic were surprised by the new guidance.
Out of 723 of the public health experts surveyed by the Times, 80% said they had expected Americans to be advised to continue masking in public indoor places for at least another year, while 88% said they believed people should still wear masks at large outdoor gatherings like concerts, even if they are vaccinated.
“Unless the vaccination rates increase to 80 or 90 percent over the next few months, we should wear masks in large public indoor settings,” Vivian Towe, a program officer at the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, told the Times.
“Crowded circumstances, indoors or outdoors, necessitate a mask until community levels of Covid are much lower,” Luther-King Fasehun, a doctor and an epidemiology Ph.D. student at Temple University, added.
Some public health experts, as well as the National Restaurant Association, also expressed alarm last week as the new guidance was released.
NNU released its statement days after holding a public memorial and demonstration in Washington, D.C., where members of the union displayed hundreds of pairs of shoes to represent the more than 400 nurses who have died of Covid-19. The group also used the event to call on OSHA to issue an ETS to protect frontline workers.