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U.S. Is Still Without Regulations For Personal Protective Equipment

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Federal officials now say more than 62,000 American health care workers have gotten sick during the COVID-19 pandemic and nearly 300 have died. Many got sick while caring for coronavirus patients in facilities where protective equipment, like N95 masks and gowns, were being rationed. Today in Washington, lawmakers will question the Trump administration about how and why this happened. And NPR's Brian Mann has been following this story. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Morning, David.

GREENE: So I want to ask you first about the story that you broke this week about the Trump administration killing these proposed new regulations that would have forced the health care industry to prepare for an event like this pandemic and do more to keep workers safe. What was behind that decision?

MANN: Yeah. The background here, David, is that after the H1N1 pandemic 11 years ago, the Obama administration decided that hospitals and nursing homes just weren't doing enough to keep health care workers safe. So federal officials spent six years going through all the steps required to create new workplace safety regulations to protect workers from airborne and contact infectious diseases, just like the coronavirus. These new standards were set to go into effect in 2017 and would have required hospitals to do things like stockpile protective equipment and plan for surges of sick patients. But after President Trump's election, he launched a sweeping effort to stop this kind of new regulation. Here he is speaking in December 2017.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The never-ending growth of red tape in America has come to a sudden, screeching and beautiful halt.

MANN: So NPR reviewed documents that show Trump officials permanently shelved these infectious disease regulations two years before COVID-19 hit, so they never went into effect.

GREENE: OK. Well, now we're in the midst of this pandemic. Can you talk about the consequences of that?

MANN: Yeah. For starters, the hospital and nursing home industries just weren't prepared. They didn't have enough equipment, masks and gowns. They didn't have plans in place to handle these surges of patients. While reporting on this, I talked with Benny Mathew (ph), a nurse at a hospital in the Bronx, which is one of the hardest-hit communities in the whole country. He got really sick with COVID-19. Mathew told me that as the pandemic hit, health care workers were just getting a lot of mixed messages about how dangerous it was and how they could stay safe.

BENNY MATHEW: You know, the coronavirus coming to New York and it's inevitable. And we need to be ready. We need stricter protocols and staff education. But nothing was done. There was so much confusion about what to use.

MANN: He means they were getting different instructions on different days about what kind of protective equipment to use. And NPR has confirmed this. Because there were no fixed regulations in place protecting workers, the Trump administration was able to relax worker safety recommendations, which they did repeatedly, even as tens of thousands of nurses and doctors were getting sick and hundreds were dying.

GREENE: OK, so a lot of questions here. And that brings us to today. There's a hearing in Washington before the House Labor Committee. What are we expecting?

MANN: So the heads of two key federal agencies, David, charged with keeping American workers safe are expected to testify. The chairman of this committee, Democratic Congressman Bobby Cox (ph) from Virginia, told me his questions will focus mostly on what happens next going forward, whether those safety rules developed by the Obama administration could be implemented now quickly on an emergency basis before a second wave of COVID-19 hits.

BOBBY SCOTT: What are the barriers to creating enforceable standards? And why have we not moved forward?

MANN: Yeah, so nurses have been pushing hard for this emergency rule. I should say, David, the Trump administration is pushing back. They still oppose adopting these safety standards.

GREENE: NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, thanks for your reporting here.

MANN: All right. Thank you, David.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: This report incorrectly identifies Rep. Bobby Scott as Bobby Cox.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.