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Opinion: Nurses are putting our lives on the line. Support us, don’t attack our ability to speak out

Every day, every shift — days, evenings, weekends — nurses come to work, placing our health, our safety, our very lives on the line to care for patients who may be struggling to breathe and dying amid the most sweeping global pandemic in a century.

At the end of each workday, we cautiously go home, hoping that we have not become infected, putting our own families and ourselves at risk.

COVID-19 is a silent, deadly killer. It’s made worse when we have to go on the frontlines fearful for our future, without the protection our employers have failed to provide and our elected leaders have failed to deliver.

Across the country, at least 40 nurses and many other health care workers have died of COVID-19. Thousands have been infected. There are nurses who won’t walk in the door when they get home and sleep in a tent in their backyard or their car so as not to infect their family.

There is no greater reward for a nurse than knowing we have saved a patient. And still, we struggle to persuade our employers to do the right thing and guarantee we can do our job, without becoming the next casualty.

Nurses know that an N95 respirator mask is a minimum standard we need, along with head-to-toe coverings for proper protection. Yet from coast to coast, hospital managers have refused to issue N95 masks or told us to use inferior surgical masks or other unsafe alternatives. 

In desperation, many nurses have brought their own N95 respirators to the bedside, only to have managers tell them they can’t use them, while the hospital has N95 masks locked away. Some hospitals have suspended nurses who have tried to protect themselves and even told them to care for an infected patient without any proper protective equipment. 

We’ve had employers fail to tell nurses when we’ve been exposed to a patient later confirmed as a COVID-19 patient and ordered to continue working when exposed but not actively showing symptoms, although the science has proven that you can infect others even when asymptomatic.

Through it all, especially when facing an employer who refuses to put our safety and our patients’ safety above their bottom line, we need a collective voice to advocate for our patients and ourselves.

That’s when we have taken public actions to send a united message to employers, including those who are corporate giants with billions of dollars in resources, to secure the protection we need. 

Yet, there are some, like a state representative with another agenda recently in these pages, who have attacked us for raising the alarm, suggesting we are somehow puppets, directed by our union which is “exploiting” us when we speak out about our safety. 

It is because we have a strong union, National Nurses United, that stands behind us and defends us and our patients that we have the unified strength that is often the only way to move our employers to make the improvements we so desperately need.

We appreciate when people call us heroes. But we don’t want to be martyrs. If we are the next patient on that ventilator, who will be left to care for our patients?