Racism is a public health emergency

A letter from Lynnette Vehrs, MN, RN, WSNA President, and Julia Barcott, RN, Chair of the WSNA Cabinet on Economic and General Welfare.

This story appears in Ongoing work on racial justice.

A letter to our nurses

We as a country are facing a double crisis. We are fighting to slow the spread of the coronavirus and to get nurses and other health care workers what we need to safely care for our patients. We are also facing the crisis of systemic racism manifested in the killing of George Floyd and many other black and brown people at the hands of the police. Racism is a public health emergency as much as the coronavirus pandemic is, but it can’t be solved by developing a vaccine, instituting widespread testing or social distancing.

This is why as nurses, as a professional association and as a labor union, WSNA is supporting the efforts led by black organizations to protest systemic racism and bring justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Manuel Ellis and too many other black people who have died at the hands of law enforcement officers.

These crises are intertwined. The hand of racism rests heavily on the health care system and public health. We know that people of color face systemic barriers to accessing health care and being listened to or heard. We also know that COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on people of color. Black Americans are more likely to develop COVID-19 and have a higher rate of hospitalization, mechanical ventilation and death. Add to that the disproportionate economic impact on black and brown communities, including greater rates of job losses, and the public health crises of the coronavirus and racism are inseparable.

Registered nurses have a long history of working with our partners in law enforcement to address mental illness and violence in our community and workplaces. We recognize that many of us have family, spouses and friends that work in law enforcement who share our deep concern and outrage at racist acts. Across the country, we have seen officers “take a knee” in solidarity with protestors.

The issues we are speaking out against are systemic. We are calling on our law enforcement colleagues to recognize racism as a major issue, self-reflect on the impact of racism and their relationships with the community, accept accountability and commit to true reform to address racism.

Racism has a 400 year history in America that has taken black lives for hundreds of years. Nurses are called on to advocate for their patients and their communities. That is why we cannot remain silent. That is why the Washington State Nurses Association stands in solidarity with all those who are calling for an end to systemic racism, racial violence and police brutality.

WSNA supports the principles outlined in the “open letter advocating for an anti-racist public health response to demonstrations against systemic injustice occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic” spearheaded by University of Washington infectious disease experts and signed by 1,288 public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals, and community stakeholders.

As the letter states, “To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy. However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators’ ability to gather and demand change.”

We also recognize that the choice to participate in any in-person demonstration is individual and that many, especially those at high risk for COVID-19, won’t be comfortable participating in an in-person protest. Nurses have never been known to stand by and do nothing when our patients are hurting. Now is no different. Nurses are also known for critical thinking and being thoughtful educators. Now is no different. We encourage you to make the right decision for yourself and keep your eyes open for other opportunities to support systemic changes that will improve the health and safety of our communities in the coming weeks and months.

Lynnette Vehrs, MN, RN, WSNA President

Julia Barcott, RN, Chair of the WSNA Cabinet on Economic & General Welfare