Looking back, fighting forward: A message to NNU nurses as we wrap up the Year of the Nurse

Here we are, on the edge of a new year. As we look back at 2020, nurses, you should know that your story, what you have been through this year, matters.

It might be the story of your employer telling you it’s safe to keep an N95 respirator mask in a paper bag for weeks, send it out for so-called “decontamination,” and then wear the misshapen, toxic-smelling mask you get back while caring for Covid-19 patients. Maybe it’s the story of being assaulted, as managers pulled PPE that we brought from home off our bodies, trying to make us feel ashamed about asking for the highest level of protections, not the lowest.

This year, so many of you have stories of fighting to save your patients from a virus we didn’t understand, only to see so much more death than nurses have in our entire careers. Some of you may have lost a colleague to Covid-19, or gotten sick yourself. There has been no way to leave work at work in 2020, when we have been fighting for our lives and the lives of everyone we love.

NNU RNs protested outside the White House to honor fallen nurses and demand that the administration do more to protect frontline health care workers.

As cases surge across the country and our ICUs overflow, I want to acknowledge the deep sadness, grief, and hurt of the last year. And of course the anger. Because we knew better. As nurses, we know that we must respect and follow the science, stick to the precautionary principle, and always err on the side of safety.

Instead of making science our North Star in responding to COVID, our employers and the government have instead denied reality, while they catered to the wishes of corporations like our employers, who only care about profit.

Fortunately, we are union nurses, so of course, we don’t let our employers just have their way or define who we are. That brings us to another feeling we have had over these past months: Hope.

NNU nurses have held more than 2,000 actions across the country this year. From picketing and car caravans, to marches on the boss and sticker ups, you gave your employers no rest this year. Some of you went on strike in 2020, and you should be so very proud of your fierce patient advocacy in withholding your labor.

As a result of our collective action, we have won victories at many of our facilities, and I’m pleased to announce some of the most recent wins.

Thanks to our California nurses’ advocacy, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) recently directed all general acute-care hospitals in the state to begin Covid-19 weekly testing of all health care workers and of all patient admissions. CDPH is also requiring that health care personnel with symptoms of Covid-19 be tested — as they should be! This is a model for the rest of the nation, and we will never stop fighting until nurses across the country receive the same protections.

NNU nurses have also been influencing the conversation on Covid-19 at the highest levels in this country. You may have seen that in November, Mary Turner, a registered nurse in a Covid ICU, and president of NNU affiliate the Minnesota Nurses Association, was on a panel of essential workers speaking to President-elect Joe Biden. While explaining that despite working with Covid patients since February, she has never been tested, she brought Biden to tears.

On Thanksgiving, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and future second gentleman Doug Emhoff called three NNU nurses to say thank you for their work on the front lines. NNU nurses, of course, took the opportunity to reiterate our demands to activate the Defense Production Act to mass produce PPE, and to pass an Occupational Safety and Health Administration emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases.

And I recently had the opportunity to brief President-elect Biden’s Covid-19 task force on what you all are experiencing on the front lines, and on our demands.

In the new year and beyond, NNU nurses will continue speaking truth to power. With cases surging to their most dangerous levels yet and our ICUs filling up, it’s critical that we do. Our voices have never been as loud and as resonant as they are now — and that’s exactly what the world needs.

Happy holidays, nurses. May your patients stay home, may your families stay safe, and I look forward to fighting by your side in 2021.

Union Nurse Leader & Medicare For All Activist. Executive Director of @NationalNurses, the Largest U.S. Organization of Registered Nurses. #TIME100

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