MN nurse on Biden task force: ‘I’m the one who brings reality’

MNA President Mary C. Turner

As the Biden-Harris administration assembled its COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force in the weeks following the inauguration, there was one health care leader the president asked for by name: Mary C. Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

Turner had moved Biden to tears during a press conference roundtable in November 2020, as she described what she and other nurses working in North Memorial Health Hospital’s intensive care unit were experiencing at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turner accepted Biden’s appointment to the 12-member task force, but admits that she initially felt intimidated to be working among experts in public health and other fields, who were accustomed to high-level discussions of data and policy. “I’m just a bedside-care nurse, who the hell am I anyway?” she remembered thinking.

A phone call to Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, chair of the task force, erased any lingering doubts.

“She said this to me,” Turner recalled. “‘Out of all 12 people, you’re the only one President Biden knows personally. He said that Mary Turner is so passionate about her patients, we’ve got to have her on the task force. Just be who you are, and you’re going to be just fine.’”

The task force began meeting in late February and will deliver its final recommendations to President Biden in October. Turner discussed the experience this interview, which has been edited for length.

UA: When the task force began meeting, vaccine production was just starting to ramp up. How has the scope of its work changed since then?

MT: We’ve had different topics, everything from vaccine hesitancy to the mental health of frontline workers and children. Then we did personal protective equipment, testing and what do we might do for the next pandemic. We’ve had four subgroups that meet, too. It’s been a lot of reading, a lot of meetings.

UA: What perspective or guidance has the task force delivered to the administration?

MT: The topic we started out with, vaccine hesitancy and immunizations, was cool because we had recommendations right away that we got to the president. Now, that’s not to say every state used those suggestions, but I know we did here in Minnesota. One of the recommendations was for migrant workers, to actually go in vans and take the vaccines right to them. And going by zip codes, into neighborhoods – those were all recommendations that came in that first month.

We also were instrumental in pushing OSHA to implement emergency temporary standards (in June), which, unfortunately, only covered health care workers. In the final report, we are pushing not just temporary but permanently updated OSHA standards, rather than guidelines, for all workers.

UA: I imagine you’re guided here not just by your experience as a nurse, but also as a labor leader.

MT: It’s funny because one of the chairs of our committee is a hospital administrator. He’s trying to say we don’t want standards, we want guidelines. I say, ‘No we don’t! Guidelines aren’t enforceable!’ …

If OSHA would have implemented standards instead of guidelines from the start, so many (workers) wouldn’t have died. That’s the reality of it. Guidelines give our employers free rein to just think of the bottom line and not necessarily keeping workers safe. If I do nothing else on this task force but to push through permanent, updated OSHA standards, I’ll consider my work successful.

I’ll be honest, though. It seems like whenever we run into a problem, especially in health care access, inevitably somebody will say, ‘Mary, the only way that’s going to be solved is Medicare for all or some kind of system where everyone has health care.’ A lot of the issues with our pandemic are due to our broken health care system.

UA: How do you feel you’ve influenced the task force?

MT: I may not be the one who can bring all the fancy data, but what I am is the only frontline worker with eyewitness testimony. I’m the one who brings reality. They’re all wonderful people, but I’m the only one who has been not just in my COVID ICU, but at the forums and picket lines and actions, where I have been with other frontline workers from different industries. I’ve heard all their stories. I am the dose of reality.

UA: What is it like to work closely with these experts, and then turn on the TV or log into social media and see disinformation on full blast?

MT: I think we all have a family member who’s in denial and watches more YouTube than they should. But it’s heartbreaking at the bedside for me. People coming in now, unvaccinated, it’s so tragic. That’s what all of that misinformation is doing. So it’s almost a joy to go back to any meeting of the task force and be back to reality.


  1. So proud of you Mary Turner!

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