As a professor of nursing who runs an international nurse consulting company, I have a unique perspective on the startling global pandemic of COVID-19.
The disease is severely affecting the men and women of the health professions who are on the front lines battling the new coronavirus, which causes the disease.
Medical professionals are struggling to prepare and care for the surge of large numbers of severely ill patients that will flood our hospitals in many areas of the country.
The facts on the ground are pretty straightforward: Medical professionals need personal protective equipment and ventilators.
In New York City and other hot spots around the country, the situation has become untenable.
In one hospital in New York, nurses are donning garbage bags to protect their clothes from contamination. At another hospital, a single ventilator is being used for two patients—an unprecedented response to a dire situation.
As protocols are thrown out the window and safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shift, it is not surprising that some in the medical community are becoming fearful.
While old-fashioned American grit and ingenuity ultimately will defeat this virus, policymakers must support our health workers now and give them precious time.
Among medical professionals, the death rates across the globe from COVID-19 are alarming. In Italy, medical professionals make up 8 % of the total sick, 35 doctors have died, and 6,205 health professionals have the virus.
With every health care worker who becomes sick, additional stress is placed on those left behind, thus adding to the already unbearable situation of too many patients and too few caregivers.
Amid a global pandemic, the world faces an international shortage of health providers. Medical professionals in many countries long have been concerned with low staffing levels and a lack of workforce protections. Their worries are well founded. They need support.
Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. Here are steps administrators, government officials, and the public can take to improve conditions. The good news is that in many parts of the country, some of these steps already are being taken.
So, this is what must be done—now.
1. Hospitals must extend protections to all health care professionals on the front lines.
Hospital administrators need to cancel all elective procedures (and many, thankfully, are doing so) and ensure guidelines for the use of personal protective equipment—including clear instructions for decontamination of scarce equipment—are readily available.
Meanwhile, additional nurses need to be rapidly trained to care for critical patients on ventilators.
Hospitals should coordinate with state and local officials to provide an option for external housing near the facility, so that nurses and doctors may self-isolate and prevent spread of the virus to family members.
Hospital administrators should coordinate with local officials to quickly identify volunteers and provide emergency onboarding.
Hospitals should coordinate with academic and training centers to use willing students as force multipliers, enhancing the work of licensed professionals without putting the next generation of doctors and nurses at risk.
2. Health care professionals need legal protection, compensation, and moral support.
Medical professionals need to be able to work without fear of retaliation or personal liability. State officials should revise their medical liability laws accordingly.
Likewise, for the duration of this crisis, health care workers need guaranteed workman’s compensation for exposure resulting in quarantine or illness without using paid time off or vacation hours. Hazard pay should be considered for those on high-risk units.
Hospital ethics boards must establish clear guidelines for crisis decision-making, to prevent moral distress. Psychologists and spiritual advisers should be readily available to provide counsel. Managers should ensure appropriate staffing and adequate breaks, meals, and time off to recover.
3. The full power of the federal government must be brought to bear.
For his part, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and invoked the Defense Production Act, allowing him to order U.S. manufacturers to focus around the clock on resources needed by our medical professionals.
We need to go further to guarantee medical supplies and equipment are readily available by assessing requests, projecting need, increasing the speed of distribution, and ensuring U.S. companies are meeting needs here in America.
The federal government also must continue to intervene to increase imports of medical supplies, equipment, and key pharmaceuticals while eliminating tariffs on additional medical resources and preventing hoarding and price gouging.
4. The full power of state governors and legislators must be brought to bear.
Under the U.S. Constitution, state officials exercise enormous police powers to protect their own citizens.
For the duration of the crisis, governors need to continue the call for volunteers. State legislatures should loosen restrictions on professional licensure regulations, allow for licensed personnel from other states, suspend restrictions on advanced practice nurses, and expedite licensure for retired medical professionals.
Coordinated efforts on the part of local, state, and federal officials are imperative to ensure the safety of the public and our health care workforce. Hospitals need additional funding to support the efforts.
5. Every American should step up to the task.
Health professionals can be depended upon to meet this challenge, but the coronavirus threatens all of us one way or another.
Ordinary Americans can help by donating medical masks, practicing social distancing, donating blood, and helping at-risk neighbors.
In recent days, an outpouring of support for health care workers has been seen across the country; countless fellow Americans have showed up to clap for staff at shift change, pray for workers from parking lots, and make food deliveries.
The work is hard. The support is appreciated.