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Nurses are disappointed by the CDC easing isolation rules, union says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we have Jean Ross. She is the co-president of the nation's largest union for registered nurses, the National Nurses United. Welcome to the program.

JEAN ROSS: Glad to be here.

INSKEEP: What do you make of the new guidelines?

ROSS: Well, we're disappointed. We operate on the precautionary principle. Instead of having to make sure that it's absolutely proven that you aren't contagious after five days, we would say go ahead and stay with the 10 and then even ramp up your recommendations. For example, give full credence to the fact that it is an airborne virus and insist on the right type of masks and the multi approach, multilayered approach to infection control, which includes everything including the vaccine.

INSKEEP: You just said insist on the right type of mask. I think you're telling me that even if they were to say five days in isolation, five days with a mask, we want you with an N95, something that is much more effective than a cloth mask. Is that what you're saying?

ROSS: I am.

INSKEEP: What do you think of the question of practicality here, that in - especially in essential industries, maybe most of all in health care, where people are so stressed and so strained, the benefit of keeping people out of work an extra five days is not worth the cost?

ROSS: I think it's penny-wise, pound-foolish. You just said it. We're already strained. And putting us at risk for more transmission, illness and death is not going to help the fact that we're short of people working right now.

INSKEEP: You know, I have noticed - I mean, I know some people who work in the health care industry, people who work in hospitals. And from time to time, it's anecdotal, of course. I hear stories of people who didn't even get the 10 days. They're asked, can you - OK, you tested positive. Can you take the weekend off and be back Monday? Because we really need somebody there. And you're going to be wearing a mask. And you're working around people with COVID. Like, they've essentially justified much shorter isolation periods as it is. Does that happen a lot?

ROSS: It does. Those of us who have a union contract - it's easier for us to, you know, enforce and stand up for ourselves. But if you don't have one, you're pretty much threatened, come back to work or else. And then to make matters worse, we had our OSHA emergency temporary standard that lapsed on December 21. They haven't made it permanent yet. And that gives employers leeway to not do the right thing and continue to supply us with the proper PPE, including the masks. I mentioned the respirators instead of just face masks. And it leaves us more or less as sitting ducks, which is where we started out in the beginning, if you recall.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry. You just referred to PPE not for the general population. Not everybody in America has an N95 mask. You just referred to PPE specifically for nurses. Are you telling me we're almost two years into the pandemic in the United States, and there are still nurses who do not have proper masks available to them?

ROSS: Depending on where you work, our surveys that we routinely give to nurses say that, yes.

INSKEEP: What would you have the government do, then, in this situation to make things more sustainable for your nurses in the no doubt difficult couple of months ahead.

ROSS: Making that temporary standard from OSHA permanent would go a long way in helping us. It would help us enforce the protections that we need. So far, the employers have shown us that unless they're mandated, they're not going to do the right thing.

INSKEEP: Jean Ross is president of National Nurses United. Thanks so much.

ROSS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.