We Need a Czar to Protect Health Care Workers

The President is now calling the fight against the coronavirus a war. But in what kind of war do we send in troops without any armor? Our brave first responders and health professionals are working without the protective gear they need to keep safe. At the rate things are going, they may never get the gear they need if no one in the administration is accountable for prioritizing their safety.

Most health care workers dealing with sick patients need to wear special respirator masks such as N95s, and protective gloves, face shields, and gowns to stay safe. You may have seen reports of a dire shortage of this protective gear, yet there is no one person in the administration solely responsible for solving this problem. In fact—I kid you not—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told doctors and nurses to use scarves if they can’t find a respirator mask, even though there is zero evidence that these would protect frontline workers.

Let’s be clear about what this administration is asking of health care workers and emergency responders. It is asking them to risk their health and their lives, as well as the health of their families, by running into battle totally unprotected. Many in the U.S. are already ill, some critically, from taking care of patients. The Lancet reports that in the Lombardy region of Italy, one in five health care workers fell ill from the virus.

The federal government has 10 million of these N95 protective masks stored in warehouses that are part of the Strategic National Stockpile, all controlled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The stockpile also has surgical masks and other equipment that frontline workers desperately need. Only a governor can request some of this supply, but even when one does submit a request, the gear is not being distributed timely. In Wisconsin, for example, the entire congressional delegation had to send a follow-up letter to the federal government to support the governor’s request for a small amount of the stockpile. Other states have received some supplies but much less than what they asked for.

The stockpile is limited and far from adequate. It is estimated that we will need some 300 million N95 respirators in this battle. Still, the administration needs to get what limited stockpile does exist out to the frontline troops now. And they need to do much more.

Sadly, the federal agency supposedly in charge of protecting workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, can do little in this crisis. With the lowest number of inspectors in the agency’s history, OSHA simply does not have the resources to do on-site inspections when health care workers blow the whistle on the lack of protection. Moreover, OSHA still has not set a specific standard requiring protection against this type of infectious disease—the Trump administration halted efforts to write such a requirement in 2017, and the administration blocked a related provision in the coronavirus aid package enacted this week. OSHA could require hospitals to use the more protective respirators that are available (PAPRs)—they are more expensive but can be reused—but it is not. This small agency does not have the power to get workers the protection they need in this crisis.

Clearly, there needs to be someone in the federal government accountable for ensuring that our health care workers are protected from coronavirus. The administration needs to appoint a “czar” in charge of figuring out how to get those 300 million respirators and other protective gear produced—an experienced hand who is solely focused on fixing this part of the crisis. The czar should use the Defense Production Act to get it done.

This administration needs to immediately focus the nation’s resources on keeping our health care workers and first responders safe. This cannot wait until tomorrow. The federal government must prioritize protecting these workers now, to prevent our health care system from becoming overwhelmed sooner than we care to imagine.

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About the Author

Deborah Berkowitz

Worker Health and Safety Program Director, National Employment Law Project

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