Melanie Rogers is a public health nurse with an urgent message! She wrote an open letter to all health care workers and public health colleagues to provide safety guidelines in the era of COVID19 protesters. Melanie has experience with protesters in her work as a public health nurse working in health care facilities that provided abortion services. Violence against nurses and other health care workers is at an all-time high, we must protect ourselves and each other.
Thank you, Melanie, you leadership and courage to speak truth to power is a bright spot in a difficult time.
To the public health nurses and other public health and health care workers who have never had to contemplate coming to work amidst crowds of protesters:
The world has gone topsy-turvy during the coronavirus pandemic. The United States has had an uncoordinated national response to the public health threat of COVID19, leaving states and local public health jurisdictions to create policy responses to stop the spread of the virus. Stay at home orders, business closures, requirements or suggestions of masks – while these make sense from the public health perspective to prevent the spread of this pestilence, have proven quite unpopular in some areas. Most states by now, May 2020, have seen protests from members of their public who are angry about the decisions either made by public health officials or made by elected officials informed by public health officials. The first amendment of the Constitution guarantees a right to free speech and assembly, and in many cases, it is just gatherings of individuals in public places with signs and speeches. Some gatherings, however, have hints or threats of violence. The objects of the ire are legislators, elected officials, and in some cases, public health leaders.
Extension of emergency declarations in Michigan drew armed protestors storming the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing on April 30. (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/hundreds-protest-michigan-lawmakers-consider-extending-governors-emergency-powers-n1196886). On May 4, 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation seized pipe bombs from the home of a Colorado anti-lockdown protestor who helped organize an armed protest. (https://abcnews.go.com/US/colorado-man-planning-armed-protest-states-coronavirus-restrictions/story?id=70491370) The threats of violence are real.
This is a new landscape for the workplace for many in public health and health care. I extend my sympathies to those of you who have never had to contemplate a crowd of protestors at your place of work, particularly those who might be inclined towards violence. It can feel like a game of Schrodinger’s Protester – you don’t know which ones possess ill intent until they execute it. It’s a scary mindset to have.
I am a nurse who has worked in an abortion clinic setting. Those of us with this experience on our resumes in the United States are unfortunately well-versed with the experience of coming in to work amidst a crowd of protesters who are unhappy to see you coming to do your job. I would like to take the opportunity of this writing to extend some pieces of advice from my experience as an abortion care nurse to a setting I never thought I’d have to apply these precepts towards.
1. Maintain situational awareness: You may not be used to watching out for protesters at your workplace. Keep an eye on the activities of people outside your building, if any are gathered. Note what they are doing. Do not approach them intentionally other than to drive or walk past them on the way into your building. Do not engage them. Do not talk to them. Move past as though they were not there. Keep distance between yourself and them where possible. If it is possible to use a side entrance instead of the public entrance to your building, consider using this access point instead.
2. You might be photographed or videotaped: In general, it is legal for people to be on public spaces and to photograph or videotape things that happen in public areas. Public health departments are public places. Do not wear your work badge or name tag outside of the building. When I worked in an abortion clinic setting, I found a picture of myself entering the building with a date and time stamp upon it on a public website dedicated to exposing abortion clinic employees. As far as I am aware, no such resource exists for exposing public health employees, but you may need to behave as though there were. During this pandemic, most of us are already wearing face coverings – consider adding sunglasses and a hat or scarf if you find there are protesters gathering at your workplace.
3. Your workplace needs to address the possibility of protesters and develop safety policies and procedures: The leadership of your public health department needs to be realistic that there can be protesters at your workplace during a pandemic where members of your community may be unhappy with the decisions of public health authorities. Employees of public health departments can represent the face of public health policies that members of the public are unhappy with. It is important to develop policies and procedures ahead of time, so employees have an understanding of what is expected of them if they encounter protestors or other threats. The policies and procedures need to include at what threshold to involve local law enforcement. These policies and procedures also need to include an explainer of the applicable laws in your jurisdiction regarding the right of the public to exercise their first amendment rights. Situations to address include threatening phone calls, suspicious mail or packages, threats of violence on social media, and in-person threats to safety. The public information officers at your health department should monitor social media for protest activity and threats that are made on health department social media channels.
4. Listen to your gut: If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Safety of self is priority. Consider reading The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker to learn about the importance of listening to one’s instincts where violence avoidance is concerned. https://www.amazon.com/Gift-Fear-Gavin-Becker-ebook/dp/B0036Z9U2A
5. Don’t let your guard down at the end of the day: In my experience, protesters at abortion clinics tended to gather most frequently in the mornings. This may be different for protests that could occur at public health department settings – this is an unprecedented time. However, it is important to recognize that threats to safety may occur at the end of the workday as well. Pay attention to vehicles that leave at the same time as yours. If you notice you are being followed, take a different route than normal, and alert law enforcement.
It is my fervent hope that no public health nor health care worker has to employ these safety strategies in their workplace. However, it behooves us to take precautions and lessons learned from a facet of healthcare that has already faced these threats. I encourage all health care and public health workers to advocate for their own safety within the leadership of their workplaces and to maintain awareness of the threats they may face during the era of COVID-19.
Bio: Melanie Rogers, RN, MPH is a public health nurse in Colorado currently working on the COVID-19 response in her local public health jurisdiction. Her prior experience as an abortion care nurse inform her perspective on workplace safety. She can be reached on Twitter at @MRogersRN