Labor Unions Say CDC Mask Advice Ignores Science, Equity

By Kevin Stawicki
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Law360 (May 19, 2021, 7:13 PM EDT) -- The nation's largest union representing nurses called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday to reverse course on its recent recommendation that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can largely eschew mask and physical distancing requirements, calling the advice "dangerous."

There is no science-based reason for the CDC to loosen virus-related restrictions among those who are inoculated against COVID-19, the National Nurses United said during a press conference. Doing so not only threatens public safety but puts increased risk on the lives of people of color who have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic, the union said.

The CDC said in its May 13 guidance that people who are fully vaccinated — those who are two weeks removed from their final vaccine — don't have to wear a mask or physically distance indoors or outdoors, except for certain exceptions, as long as no laws require otherwise.

But that guidance was based on incomplete data that wasn't peer-reviewed, ignoring recent research that shows vaccination is just one part of the proper public health response that must also include masking, social distancing, testing and other workplace measures for frontline workers, the union said. 

"Science shows this is exactly the wrong time to be relaxing our multipronged approach to infection control that studies show actually works to control the virus," NNU President Jean Ross said.

Infection numbers continue to rise across the country, only 37% of the American population is vaccinated and new variants of the virus are cropping up, Ross said, noting that there are just too many "unknowns" to reverse course on previous guidance. While one vaccinated person won't likely get ill from COVID-19, they can still carry the virus and "keep it in circulation," so infection control measures like masking, social distancing and regular testing should not be dropped, she said.

"We're all in this together," Ross said. "It's not about one individual."

The union also focused on the likely negative impacts the CDC policy could have on frontline workers and people of color, said Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, who also leads NNU as president.

"Vulnerable populations being put at risk under this new guidance are essential workers, like myself, who also happen to disproportionately be workers of color who have already borne the brunt of this pandemic," Triunfo-Cortez said.

In addition to removing one of the most critical infection control measures, the CDC is also putting the burden on frontline workers to determine who is vaccinated or unvaccinated, Triunfo-Cortez said.

Wednesday's demands joined recent calls by the United Food and Commercial Workers, who say the relaxed guidance goes too far in the wrong direction. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, backed the unions' calls for the agency to reverse course.

"With vaccination rates among working-age Americans below 50%, and vaccination rates for Black and brown people lagging far behind the overall population, these workers are raising legitimate questions about what the administration is doing to make workplaces safer for those who have already suffered the greatest harm," Scott said in a statement.

Representatives for the CDC and the White House did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

--Editing by Vincent Sherry. 

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