A proactive approach needed for coronavirus, say union leaders

Educators, nurses and flight attendants are calling for a coordinated response to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, where there have been thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths. Cases of the virus have been identified in a growing number of other countries, including the United States.


Last week, the Trump administration declared a public health emergency for the coronavirus. While the administration says the risk to the public is low, AFT President Randi Weingarten and others want the federal government to take a proactive approach to make sure people are safe. That is why nurses and healthcare workers, educators and flight attendants held a press call on Feb. 4 about the need for the administration to provide the most up-to-date information on the best ways to contain the virus in the United States.

“We are seeing states and localities doing different things to inform the public, but we need federal agencies like the CDC and OSHA to be uniform and unified in how we deal with this potential pandemic,” said Weingarten during the call.

“We are as concerned about not creating panic and not creating profiling people as we are about ensuring that this pandemic is abated and controlled in the United States. That’s why we are working together as people representing those working in the airline industry, education and healthcare,” she said.

“The way to stop a pandemic is for us all to be on the same page,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Nelson called on the government to ensure that workers can call in sick to self-quarantine without financial penalty.

“We are not sure how the coronavirus will affect the United States now, but we know we need to take this seriously,” said Weingarten, who noted that the handling of Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes in Puerto Rico has not instilled confidence in the administration’s ability to take on a potential pandemic.

“We need to make sure people have the information they need to provide a safe and healthy environment for themselves and their families,” said Weingarten. To do that, the AFT has put together resources for our members, students, families, patients and the traveling public. 

Michelle Thoman, a registered nurse at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and member of the Ohio Nurses Association, said her union has shared the AFT resources with members. “In the last four weeks, most of the education about the coronavirus has been provided to workers in the emergency department,” she said. The nurses are asking for more widespread education for all hospital staff so that they can protect themselves and their patients or family members.

“We have issued an information request regarding the hospital’s emergency plan and discussed ways to be proactive instead of reactive in this situation. The frontline healthcare workers spend the majority of time educating patients and the public; we want to be armed with the correct information,” said Thoman

“One of the things that strikes me about the coronavirus is that information from the CDC is opaque,” said Jacqueline Moline, vice president of Occupational Medicine, Epidemiology and Prevention at Northwell Health, a healthcare system based in New York. “The guidance for consumers has not been clear.”

Moline noted that while there are only a handful of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States, there are also a lot of people with flu-like symptoms that mimic the virus, but because it is flu season, it’s more likely that they have the flu. Moline recommended people follow basic precautions to prevent the spread of germs and reiterated the call for government and healthcare systems to be proactive. “We can’t be reactive. We need to devote the appropriate resources to ensuring that we are ready to deal with this virus.”

“The outbreak has to be a wakeup call for strengthening public healthcare systems,” said Weingarten. “We need to invest more in public health infrastructure.” Weingarten also called on healthcare employers to have emergency plans in place for infectious diseases and for frontline workers in public settings to be provided with training, equipment and supplies.

“We will do our part, but we need the federal government to have a more robust plan,” said Weingarten.

[Adrienne Coles]

A webinar to educate members about the coronavirus will be available for all AFT locals on Friday, Feb. 7, at 1:15 p.m. EST.