Before they read the names, before they addressed a small gaggle of news reporters who had gathered to hear them speak, the nurses lined the red brick walkway that runs through Lafayette Square with empty white shoes. Nurses’ shoes.
“We ask you to imagine the nurse who would have walked in these shoes,” said Stephanie Sims, a registered nurse from the District. “Know that these shoes stand for someone who woke up in the morning — or maybe in the afternoon or the middle of the night — who pulled on their scrubs, kissed their children or other loved ones goodbye and headed to work, knowing they were walking into danger.”
The protest, organized by National Nurses United, the largest nurses’ union in the country, was the second in as many weeks to address the White House head on.
Nurses present said they were there to honor their colleagues in celebration of National Nurses Week and bring their continued pleas for more protective equipment to lawmakers.
More than 9,000 health-care workers in the United States have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those numbers are believed to be an undercount of infections because of a lack of tests or barriers to getting tested in many areas.
For weeks, health-care providers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and rehabilitation centers have begged government agencies to provide them with protective gear — including N95 respirator masks, face shields and gowns. The nurses said this equipment can make the difference between life and death for health-care providers, as well as their vulnerable patients.
“How many of these nurses worked in hospitals that were long on patients but short on N95 respirators?” Sims asked. “How many of these nurses were failed by chaotic and haphazard protocols which left them vulnerable to exposure and illness? How many of these nurses died because this administration, this Congress, our elected officials, our government agencies failed to act, to lead and to protect them?”
Nurses are back at the White House at the start of Nurses Week to protest Trump’s abhorrent failure to protect nurses and other health care workers. There are 88 pairs of shoes for every nurse in the US whose name we know who has died of covid-19. Presente! @NationalNurses pic.twitter.com/FAVz1FHTtY— Kenneth Zinn (@kennethzinn) May 7, 2020
A different group of nurses had gathered at the White House the day before at the invitation of President Trump. Nurses in white lab coats gathered for photos with the president and described conditions at the facilities where they work.
“So, PPE has been sporadic,” said Sophia L. Thomas, a nurse from New Orleans and president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. “But it’s been manageable, and we do what we have to do. We’re nurses, and we learn to adapt."
Trump interjected: “Sporadic for you, but not sporadic for a lot of other folks,” he said.
On Thursday, the nurses who gathered to demonstrate outside the White House said Thomas was right the first time. Sims said nurses around the country have not had enough equipment to do their jobs safely — and in many jurisdictions, including the nation’s capital, the number of coronavirus infections has continued to climb.
But the demonstrators did not lay sole blame at the feet of the president. They asked why Congress and federal agencies had not done more to ensure the safety of front-line workers.
Last month, National Nurses United petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to institute an emergency safety standard that would give nurses more protective gear, including N95 respirator masks, which filter tiny particles effectively enough to keep out the coronavirus.
Health-care workers, state lawmakers and activist groups have for weeks called on Trump to enforce the Defense Production Act to order mass production of those materials. Many have also petitioned Congress to force the president’s hand and compel Trump to use his authority to mandate the production of such gear.
“Every nurse, on every shift, in every hospital is putting themselves on the line during this pandemic,” Sims said. “It is time for the country to step up and protect them as they fight to protect us.”