As Coronavirus Surges, Merkley, Underwood Propose Agenda to Support Nurses Fighting on the Frontlines

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley teamed up with Representative Lauren Underwood (D-IL-14) today to unveil an agenda to direct urgently needed support and investments to America’s nursing workforce.

“As the husband of a nurse, I’ve seen up close the sacrifices our nurses make day after day to provide exceptional care and comfort to our communities,” said Senator Merkley. “They’ve been on the absolute front lines of this pandemic—tragically, often without the full support, resources, and PPE they need. Now more than ever, we must do everything we can to support and invest in these amazing health professionals. The health and well-being of our communities depends on it.”

“Applauding the nurses who have valiantly served on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic is not enough: we must ensure that our nation’s nurses have the support they need during this public health emergency and beyond,” said Congresswoman Lauren Underwood.  “As a registered nurse, I’m proud to partner with Senator Merkley to advance the Agenda for Nurses Fighting COVID-19, which would provide nurses battling this pandemic with the personal protective equipment, mental health care, and workplace protections they deserve, while also investing in the nursing workforce of the future.”

With more than 4 million registered nurses in the United States, nurses make up the single largest component of the health care workforce. Not only have America’s nurses formed a critical platoon in America’s battle against the coronavirus crisis, they have long played an integral role in providing high-quality care to children and families, and in addressing maternal health and addiction crises.

The value of their contributions to our public health will only become more critical as the nation continues to grapple with the pandemic and sets out to tackle serious, entrenched health care disparities. According to Gallup, 85 percent of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of nurses as high or very high—ranking them as the most honest and ethical professionals in the country for the 18th year in a row.

The lawmakers’ agenda outlines a blueprint to deliver critical support to America’s nurses, by identifying priority items for future coronavirus relief legislation, and key recommendations for President-elect Biden, his administration, and Congress. Those steps are as follows:

For future COVID-19 relief legislation:

  • Provide hazard pay to nurses and frontline health care workers during the pandemic.
  • Ensure that nurses and frontline health care workers who are exposed to COVID-19 are prioritized for testing and treatment, to maintain a healthy workforce.
  • Expand paid leave to all workers, including nurses and health care workers, so they are not forced to use paid time off or forgo wages to quarantine from exposure to COVID-19, a COVID-19 diagnosis, or from post-vaccination symptoms caused by receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Provide resources to support the mental health of nurses responding to the pandemic.
  • Include funding to ensure child care coverage for all who need it, including nurses.

For President-elect Biden and his administration:

  • Exercise the full authority and powers under the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of respirators and other critical PPE.
  • Through the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provide scientific rationale for any changes to testing or PPE guidance.
  • Through the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and relevant federal agencies, develop reporting requirements to better track PPE levels at health care facilities.
  • Through the Food and Drug Administration, research the effectiveness of various decontamination methods for the reuse of PPE by nurses and health care professionals.
  • Through the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring employers to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to protect workers, including nurses.
  • Include nurses at every step of the COVID-19 response process, in all possible conversations, and among all future taskforces, commissions, committees, councils, and federal boards.

For Congress:

  • Remove barriers to nursing education and ensure nursing career pathways are accessible to students who are first-generation, and from underserved or underrepresented communities, including rural and frontier communities.
  • Retire federal barriers that prevent Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) from practicing to the full extent of their education and training.
  • Improve and expand federal student loan forgiveness, scholarships, and incentives for nurse educators.
  • Continue to support and bolster the Title VIII Nursing Workforce Development Programs.
  • Rebuild America’s public health infrastructure which has faced devastating budget cuts.
  • Pass the Future Advancement of Academic Nursing (FAAN) Act (S.4396/H.R.7945) to modernize nursing education and recruit a diverse nursing workforce.

The lawmakers’ agenda has been endorsed by the American Nurses Association, American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Oncology Nursing Society, and the Oregon Nurses Association

“Combating the COVID-19 pandemic will take the full strength of the country, including nurses, faculty, and students who have already been on the frontlines and are needed again to educate the public, distribute and administer vaccines, ensure health care for all, and meet the next public health challenge,” said Dr. Susan Bakewell-Sachs, Chair of AACN’s Board of Directors and Dean at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) School of Nursing. “I applaud my Senator, Jeff Merkley, and Congresswoman Lauren Underwood for putting forth this comprehensive framework and recognizing the foundational role that nursing education plays in preparing current and future frontline healthcare providers.” 

 “Supporting and enhancing nursing education pathways is critical to preparing the nursing workforce to tackle COVID-19 and the future public health needs of our nation,” said Dr. Deborah Trautman, AACN President and Chief Executive Officer. “We look forward to working with Senator Jeff Merkley and Congresswoman Lauren Underwood to meet these healthcare challenges and support nurses, faculty, and students as they continue to care for patients in all communities, including rural and underserved areas,”

“Nurses are proud to be on the frontlines caring for our patients and our community during their time of need. These critical COVID-19 protections will allow nurses and health care workers to focus on keeping our patients safe and healthy and ensuring everyone in our community receives the care they deserve. We thank Senator Merkley and Rep. Underwood for their continued advocacy to protect and support nurses and patients during and after this pandemic,” said Oregon Nurses Association President, Lynda Pond RN.