Given the sometimes-exhausting nature of persevering through the COVID-19 global pandemic, it occasionally may seem as if the novel coronavirus has been around forever.
However, March 11 in fact will mark two years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, the disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), a pandemic. The Trump administration had pronounced a public health emergency a month earlier (Feb. 3, 2020).
At press time (late January), there had been at least 850,000 deaths in the United States caused by COVID-19 since the pandemic’s onset. More than 66 million cases in all 50 states, U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. had been reported. Globally, there have been more than 331 million cases and more than 5.54 million deaths confirmed. More than 9.71 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide.
Meanwhile, the omicron variant – first detected in the U.S. on Dec. 1, 2021 – has rapidly become the dominant strain of the coronavirus. Just one month after that first detection, it accounted for 95 percent of the nation’s COVID cases. The U.S. in early January recorded more than one million positive cases in a single day, as hospitalizations skyrocketed. Public health experts said that although omicron is extremely contagious, vaccines have helped prevent more-severe reactions among many who’ve been immunized.
Like the rest of the nation, the SIU has felt omicron’s effects. At various times from late December to mid-January, the union periodically and temporarily closed several hiring halls for precautionary reasons (including Baltimore, Jersey City, Wilmington and Jacksonville, plus headquarters). In early January, headquarters temporarily reduced its in-person staffing while increasing off-site work.
The union-affiliated school in Piney Point, Maryland, announced that, effective February 1, 2022, any upgraders or apprentices must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including booster shots if they are eligible to receive one.
Just before the New Year, the union and Intrepid Personnel and Provisioning announced a memorandum of understanding (effective Jan. 1) regarding COVID protocols for mariners sailing aboard vessels operating in the Jones Act trade (excluding MSC-chartered vessels). The memorandum, available on the SIU website and at the halls, modifies the vaccine requirement and stipulates corresponding shipboard safety measures.
While the U.S. health care system became overwhelmed due to omicron, the Supreme Court on Jan. 13 temporarily blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large employers. The court did permit a vaccine mandate to remain for medical facilities that take Medicare or Medicaid payments.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented in the former ruling. They said the majority usurped the power of Congress, the president and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
“In the face of a still-raging pandemic, this Court tells the agency charged with protecting worker safety that it may not do so in all the workplaces needed,” they said in their dissent. “As disease and death continue to mount, this Court tells the agency that it cannot respond in the most effective way possible. Without legal basis, the Court usurps a decision that rightfully belongs to others. It undercuts the capacity of the responsible federal officials, acting well within the scope of their authority, to protect American workers from grave danger.”
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said the federation is “disappointed” by the court’s decision. “While infections and hospitalizations surge, we again urge the Biden administration to require employers to provide protections beyond vaccines,” she said.
Shuler called for a “COVID-19 standard for health-care workers” along with “an emergency standard to ensure all at-risk workers are provided layers of protections against COVID-19 transmission at work like improved ventilation, distancing, masking and paid leave. We will not beat this pandemic until we stop the spread of the virus at work.”
Also at press time, the Biden administration announced a program to mail up to 500 million at-home COVID-19 test kits to every household that requests them. These kits could be mailed to as many as 160 million addresses. Union members who work for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will be critical to the success of the program. Test kits can be ordered at COVIDTests.gov.
“The APWU is excited and fully supports this plan,” said American Postal Workers Union (APWU) President Mark Dimondstein. “It is in the interests of the health and wellbeing of the general population as this dangerous pandemic continues. It underscores the invaluable role of the public Postal Service in the lives of the people. It shines a light on the importance of maintaining universal service to every address and person.”
“The ongoing pandemic has proven beyond a shadow of doubt the critical importance of the services we provide six and seven days a week to keep people connected and essentials moving,” National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) President Fredric Rolando said. “This partnership is the perfect example in action. Letter carriers are proud to be the face of this important initiative as we continue serving all communities equitably.”