Credit: George Danby

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Maine healthcare workers and others on the frontline of the pandemic are risking their lives because of a devastating lack of personal protective equipment — and that places all our health in jeopardy.

“Most of us accept that we’re going to be sick or at least carriers,” one Maine nurse recently told the Bangor Daily News. “We just don’t have the gear to keep us all safe,” said another.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

In Maine, healthcare workers account for more than one in five of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Nationally, more than 27 healthcare workers have died from the disease and over 9,000 have been sickened, so far.

The Trump Administration has failed to protect these heroes, who are putting their lives on the line every day to save ours during this pandemic.

This must not stand. Workplace deaths and illness are preventable — and lives are at stake.

The administration should use all powers of the federal government, including more aggressive use of the Defense Production Act, to speed immediate production of personal protective equipment and ensure it is routed to states for distribution across acute care, home care and long-term care settings, as well as other industries whose workers confront the risk of exposure on a daily basis in their workplace.

We have to approach this as we would a wartime mobilization effort. The most viable way to address the PPE crisis on the scale we need is to use the Defense Production Act to shift production to produce more PPE immediately.

The Trump Administration must also immediately complete the distribution of the masks and equipment held in the Strategic National Stockpile and identify reserves of masks and equipment in other industries which are not currently working and redistribute them to frontline workers.

We thank Maine’s congressional delegation for pressing the president to use his authority and correct his mistakes that have already cost healthcare workers their lives and for their leadership in passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

But all of the above is still not enough to protect frontline workers. Because it’s not only nurses, doctors, and first responders risking their lives everyday — all workers delivering essential supplies and services are putting their lives on the line during this pandemic.

Nursing home workers caring for our most vulnerable, delivery drivers bringing us necessary goods as we stay at home, grocery workers bravely encountering the public each day to provide us with food, postal workers bringing us mail, and other essential workers are all risking illness and death every time they report to work.

Too many of these essential workers are already risking and even losing their lives because they lack face masks, face shields, hand sanitizer, and other necessary protections.

Nationally, dozens of grocery workers have died from COVID-19, and here in Maine, we’ve seen an explosion of cases in nursing homes — where workers lack adequate protective equipment. Many of these frontline workers are also among the most poorly paid.

Union leaders in Maine representing nurses, firefighters, mill workers and first responders are rightly demanding better protections and hazard pay for the workers they represent.

Congress must pass legislation to protect all workers risking their lives on the frontline. Maine’s Congressional delegation should support priority policy actions that:

Require immediate adoption of a Temporary Emergency Standard to protect all frontline workers from airborne infectious disease, through action by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), because the Trump Administration has so far refused to do so. This new rule would require workplaces to provide personal protective equipment, disinfectants, and training to all frontline workers.

Provide hazard pay to all frontline workers, and increase direct payments to all Americans to offset the economic damage of the pandemic and reduce the public health dangers caused by economic despair.

Significantly expand investment to strengthen our public health capacity at all levels of government — federal, state, tribal and municipal — in order to contain and end this pandemic and prevent future outbreaks and other health hazards.

Providing all frontline workers with protective equipment and strengthening and investing in our public health system will bolster our collective defense against this merciless virus — because protecting workers’ health and safety means public health protections for all of us.

Cynthia Phinney is president of the Maine AFL-CIO. Mike Belliveau is executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center.