Every weekend, Celia Yap-Banago’s sons and husband take a short drive from their home to the nearby cemetery with flowers and Yap-Banago’s favorite snack: chips and a coke. Yap-Banago died of Covid-19 on April 21, 2020 — just short of her 40th work anniversary as a registered nurse at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo.
“We still set out a plate [for her] any time we eat, because we want her to know we are still thinking of her,” said her son Jhulan, 29. “She is still very, very loved.”
Nurses Week is May 6–12, and while our employers will call us “heroes” and give us pizza parties and swag with the hospital logo — as they do every year — families across the country are grappling with an empty seat at the dinner table, and an alternate future stretching out in front of them. Patients and registered nurse colleagues are feeling the loss of a skilled healer, whose compassion and dedication saved lives.
The grief is tremendous — and yes, the anger. Praise from our employers on Nurses Week is empty, and even insulting, without the workplace protections nurses need just to stay alive and keep our patients and families safe. In National Nurses United’s February survey of RNs across the country, more than 81 percent said they still didn’t have the personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed to do their job safely. To date, more than 400 registered nurses across the country have died of Covid-19.
If our employers truly appreciated us, they would protect us. And when they don’t, they must be held accountable.
Since day one of the pandemic, National Nurses United has called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) on infectious diseases. This ETS would mandate that our employers give us the strongest level of protections for Covid-19 and future pandemics, not the weakest. President Biden even issued an executive order on the ETS, with a March 15 deadline. That deadline came and went — and while we have seen some positive movement, we are heading into Nurses Week 2021 without this critical workplace protection.
To understand what this means, consider the fact that Yap-Banago, along with her colleagues, demanded optimal PPE in the earliest days of Covid-19. Instead, Research Medical Center, owned by the outrageously wealthy HCA Healthcare, locked up and rationed N95 respirators. More than a year after her death, her fellow nurses say they are still fighting for even basic protections that an ETS could have mandated long ago.
“Over the course of the past year, every single nurse and health care worker in my unit has contracted Covid-19,” Yap-Banago’s coworker Pascaline Muhindura, RN, said in testimony to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections in March. “Our families have been put at risk of getting Covid-19, and many of our family members have gotten infected because of our jobs. All this illness and death was preventable — if only our employers and government had taken the necessary steps to protect us.”
Muhindura also spoke at an April Workers Memorial Day event presented by the National Council on Occupational Safety and Health, pointing out that despite Yap-Banago’s death, the hospital continues to ration N95s and to recommend that nurses use surgical masks with Covid patients. Muhindura says she and her colleagues are “fighting these dangerous policies every step of the way.”
Registered nurses on the front lines of a deadly pandemic shouldn’t be looking back on more than a year of unanswered demands. Our employers can spare us their false Nurses Week compliments and instead give us lifesaving protections, mandated by this desperately needed OSHA emergency temporary standard.
“I would do anything and everything to bring back mom for five minutes,” said Yap-Banago’s son Jhulan. “The more her story gets out, the more it should hopefully give people the courage to fight for what they think is right. I hope no more 29-year-olds have to go through what I did. I hope no more families go through what we did.”
There is nothing more meaningful to nurses than to know we can come home to our loved ones. That’s what we really want for Nurses Week.