Right now, here in Minnesota, there are nursing home workers in buildings with confirmed COVID-19 cases who are using rain ponchos and paper masks because we simply don’t have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for what we are facing. This is an outrage.

We are a state that prides itself on our world-class medical institutions. But the reality is that right now we are failing thousands of workers and residents in our nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

The death totals should be staggering enough, yet this could and will get worse if the state and federal governments don’t take action to provide the PPE needed to keep workers and residents safe. We’ve seen nursing homes and long-term care facilities with dozens of deaths in the last week. I worry, hearing from our members, that if we don’t take drastic and immediate action, these death totals will become less of a shocking headline and more of a common occurrence in the coming weeks.

There are no two ways about this: Either we take action to support these facilities, or people are going to be in unsafe conditions that will mean more deaths.

Yet instead of taking on this crisis, the health care industry is pushing the state to restart elective surgeries. Our union has thousands of members furloughed right now, and we want things to get back to normal when we can. But doing so unsafely just to appease the corporate health care industry is not the way to do it.

If we start elective surgeries and the doctors and health care facilities show that they have PPE stored up that they aren’t sharing with workers currently on the front lines, they are saying, clearly that they value their profits more than they value the lives and safety of their fellow Minnesotans.

And this crisis is also showing clearly the racial and socioeconomic divides that have helped create some of the worst racial inequities in the country here in Minnesota.

A vast majority of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota members in nursing homes are women, and a large percentage are people of color and immigrants. What our current inaction is saying to them and the elderly and disabled Minnesotans they care for is that we don’t value their lives.

The doctors who would benefit most from restarting elective surgeries are white men.

This, it must be stated again, is an outrage.

This pandemic is showing the values of Minnesota. The working people who have stepped up to provide loving care for people in need have been nothing short of amazing. In them we’ve seen the best of Minnesota.

Instead of supporting them, President Donald Trump has left states on their own and refused to use his power to demand action on PPE for health care workers. Now we are facing decisions like this that will make the whole situation worse.

If we move forward with elective surgeries before we get the basic protections nursing home and long-term care workers need to stay alive and care for fellow Minnesotans it will be a shameful acquiescence to the greedy actions of our health care system.

When get through this pandemic — and we will get through it — we will look back and have a clear picture of who cared for us and who put their personal interests ahead of the common good. The choice — and it very much is a choice — to consider elective surgeries before we’ve made sure residents and workers in nursing homes and long-term care facilities have basic protections to keep them safe will be one of the revealing moments.

As a leader of the largest health care workers’ union in the state, as a father, as a Minnesotan who cares deeply about the health and safety of my neighbors and our state, I implore state leaders to focus the crisis of lack of PPE facing nursing homes and long-term care facilities (and hospital and home care workers) before we even consider these demands from the health care industry to restart elective surgeries.

 

Jamie Gulley is president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.