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Nurses protest unsafe conditions in front of White House

A nurse's duty
A nurse's duty 02:40

Nurses from National Nurses United, a union of registered nurses across the country, held a protest in front of the White House on Tuesday. The protest is the latest organized by the union, which says its nurses have been left with minimal to no protection while treating patients infected with the coronavirus.

Nurses held photos and read the names of fellow registered nurses and other health care workers who have become infected or died from COVID-19 while at work.

"We are not heroes. We're human beings and we are susceptible just like everyone else is. And if we are dying then we can't take care of our patients," said Britta Breenan, a critical care nurse at Washington Hospital Center and member of Nurses United. "We have had nurses from our hospital die from COVID-19. And they are not dignified deaths."

Amirah Sequeira, the lead legislative advocate for National Nurses United, told CBS News that six weeks into the COVID-19 outbreak, registered nurses and other health care workers across the country "are still not protected when they are caring for suspected or COVID-19 patients." 

"Nurses are getting sick and nurses are dying and the administration and Congress have failed. For more than six weeks they have failed to protect our nurses," Sequeira said.

Nurses protest against the lack of personal protection equipment amid the coronavirus pandemic in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 21, 2020. Getty

The union is demanding a uniform health and safety standard for PPE, as well as the mass production of PPE for healthcare workers. It has directed its demands at President Trump, Congress, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

NNU called out the CDC for weakening recommendations for protections for nurses, and OSHA for not responding to their petition — sent seven weeks ago — asking the organization to issue an emergency standard for PPE. NNU also called out Congress for debating another relief package, while failing to mandate an OSHA standard to protect healthcare workers.

"We have been calling for more than a month for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard to protect workers," Sequeira said. "The Trump administration, Congress has failed us and has been failing us for months."

NNU has demanded that Mr. Trump fully invoke the Defense Production Act, ordering manufacturers to urgently increase the production of respirators, face shields, coveralls, gowns, gloves, testing equipment and supplies. On Sunday, Mr. Trump announced that the Act will be invoked to increase the production of swabs used for coronavirus testing, but did not address PPE.

The U.S. has refused to launch a coordinated national procurement effort for PPE despite widespread shortages. At a March 19 press conference, Mr. Trump said the U.S. was "not a shipping clerk." "The federal government's not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping," he said.

A U.S. official told CBS News earlier this month that the federal government isn't buying PPE directly from Chinese manufacturers, but that FEMA is helping American distributors fly shipments of gloves, gowns and masks from China so it can get to frontline workers faster. FEMA said in a statement that 50% of the PPE is sent directly to hotspots, and "the remaining 50% is fed into distributors' normal supply chain to their customers in other areas nationwide."

NNU nurses said it's not enough. "What's happening in hospitals today is because nurses and other healthcare workers don't have PPE that's needed," Sequeira said.

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