Nurses want CDC to reinstate universal masking: 'The pandemic is not over'

·5 min read
National Nurses United is urging the CDC to reinstate universal masking recommendations for people, regardless of their vaccination status. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
National Nurses United is urging the CDC to reinstate universal masking recommendations for people, regardless of their vaccination status. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The largest labor union and professional association for registered nurses in the United States is urging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reinstate universal masking recommendations for people regardless of their vaccination status, citing growing concerns over the Delta COVID-19 variant. 

In a public letter addressed to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Monday, National Nurses United pleads for a return to masking policies for all Americans. "Our suggestions are based on science and the precautionary principle and are made in order to protect nurses, other essential workers, patients and the public from COVID-19," the letter said, noting that the pandemic is "far from over."

"It should come as no surprise that cases are rising following the rapid reopening of many states and the removal of public health measures, including the CDC's May 13 guidance update that told vaccinated individuals they no longer needed to wear masks, observe physical distancing, avoid crowds or get tested or isolate after an exposure, within only a few exceptions," the letter continued. "The CDC's guidance failed to account for the possibility – which preliminary data from the United Kingdom and Israel now indicates is likely—of infection and transmission of the virus, especially variants of concern, by fully vaccinated individuals."

The union is specifically requesting the following of the CDC:

  • Reinstate the recommendation for everyone (regardless of vaccination status) to wear masks when in public or while near others from outside their household.

  • Update health care infection control and other COVID-19 guidance to recognize that the virus can be transmitted through aerosols.

  • Require tracking and transparent reporting of COVID-19 infections among healthcare workers and other essential workers.

  • Track infections in people who are fully vaccinated, including mild and asymptomatic infections.

"The pandemic is not over, and the United States once again stands on the precipice of rising cases," the letter said. "Nurses and health care workers stand ready to care for the sickest patients and to be a crucial part of the pandemic response. But our members need safe workplaces in order to ensure the safety of their patients and communities."

The CDC hasn't responded to Yahoo Life's request for comment. 

This isn't the first time National Nurses United has spoken out against the CDC's mask guidance. In May, the organization's co-president, Jean Ross, said on CNN's New Day that the change in policy is "very confusing for people."

"We have questions right now from our patients, from our families, from their families, from friends, and I can see why it's confusing," Ross said. "We have spent so long trying to redevelop the trust that people have with their government entities about what's right and what's not right." She added, "we're not out of the woods in this yet."

National Nurses United co-president Deborah Burger, a registered nurse who works on gastroenterology procedures in Santa Monica, Calif., told Yahoo Life that her organization decided to write the letter because "the pandemic is not over."

"People are still at risk of contracting COVID," she said. "Nurses and other health care workers are also at risk. The CDC needs to institute universal masking to protect the public's health."

"Nurses have a science-based practice, but we also practice the precautionary principle, which means that you do not wait for scientific proof of harm before taking action to protect people's health," Burger explained. "We expressed concerns about the impacts of the CDC's May 13, 2021 guidance that told fully vaccinated people they no longer needed to wear masks, physically distance, or avoid crowds, or remain isolated or get tested after an exposure, with only a few exceptions, when it was issued. Unfortunately, what we were concerned about in May has now happened."

Burger says the Delta variant is especially concerning for nurses. "This variant is significantly more transmissible and preliminary data from other countries experiencing surges indicates that vaccines are less effective against this variant," she says. "There are significant increases in new cases [and] hospitalizations in many states, with some seeing surges of patients with COVID."

Burger says that vaccines are "important" in the response to the pandemic but, she adds, "we also need to maintain public health measures."

But infectious disease experts are mixed on this. "There is no evidence that fully vaccinated people have much to fear from the Delta variant," infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "Therefore, I disagree with this statement from the union."

Adalja says that he doesn't think the CDC will take the recommendation "because it is not based on the evidence that has amounted about vaccines and the Delta variant." He adds, "What would be much more useful from the union would be an embracing of mandatory vaccination for all health care workers as a condition of employment."

But Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that he thinks universal masking is a "good idea" while the pandemic is ongoing, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates. Universal masking "should be done in states where the vaccination rate is under 50 percent," he says. 

Burger says that she "hopes" the CDC will take her organization's letter seriously. "We also want the pandemic to be over, but we know that ignoring data on rising cases and failing to implement precautions will cost our most vulnerable patients their lives," she says.

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