In November, President-elect Joseph Biden announced a panel of thirteen health experts as part of his Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. The board boasts of a distinguished cohort of public health officials, scientists, and physicians. However, in reading through the board’s members’ accomplished biographies, one profession seems conspicuously absent: nurses.
Angela Phung is a family nurse practitioner in Washington state who grew up in Snohomish County, an area north of Seattle with the first reported COVID-19 case in the United States. Since April 2020, she has been administering COVID-19 tests for her community at a local hospital and continues to take care of patients, both virtually and in person.
“Medicine and health care are composed of so many groups. With a pandemic, it is ultimately up to the thousands and thousands of nurses, medical assistants, and support services to keep people safe,” she says.
“Yet, we really only hear and see the doctors leading these task forces. Understandably, their education and training are crucial. Their recommendations backed by the best evidence are solid and strong. However, diversity and logistics are always needed for planning, implementation, and outcome analysis. People of the forefront do this every day, and they know what changes to expect and how to adapt to reach a collaborative goal. These people are, statistically, nurses and auxiliary staff.”
Despite not being represented in the president-elect’s task force, nurses and others in nursing-related professions have taken on a greater burden of risk during the pandemic.
A recent report published by the Centers for Disease Control in October stated that nursing-related occupations represented the largest proportion—36 percent—of health care professionals hospitalized with COVID-19. One explanation for the higher mortality rate is that those in nursing-related professions engage in prolonged and direct patient contact, from administering intravenous medications to more mundane but necessary aspects of care such as repositioning patients or assisting them to the bathroom—all of which lead to increased cumulative viral exposure over time.
Furthermore, the ongoing crisis has laid bare problems with hospital staffing. According to recent data from the Department of Human and Health Services obtained by The Atlantic, 22 percent of American hospitals anticipated staffing shortages for the week of November 12. In North Dakota, as a sign of how desperate the situation has become, Governor Doug Burgum stipulated that asymptomatic health care workers with COVID-19 may return to work. This would pressure the health care workers to come into work when they should be resting to recover and potentially increase the risk for other health care professionals and patients.
Considering the personal and professional risks presented by COVID-19, the nursing professions must have a seat in the national task force in addressing the pandemic.
Nurses will continue to be involved in every aspect of the COVID-19 disease cycle. According to Phung, “My nursing colleagues are involved from testing to diagnosis, to recovery.”
For this reason, physicians and other professionals in leadership positions must make an effort to ensure that their nursing colleagues are included in the decision-making discussions that are occurring in clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes across the country as we collectively brace against the waves of the pandemic. Now more than ever, we need to value professional diversity to ensure that we can face the virus together at every level, even within the president-elect’s coronavirus task force.
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