The Covid-19 pandemic exposed strengths in the nation’s health care system — one of the greatest being our awesome nurses. But it also exposed many weaknesses, foremost among them being chronic nurse understaffing in hospitals, nursing homes and schools.
More nurses died of job-related Covid-19 than any other type of health care worker. The more than 1,140 U.S. nurses who lost their lives in the first year of the pandemic knew the risks to themselves and their families. And yet they stayed in harm’s way. They cared for their fallen co-workers. They went to New York from around the country to fight on the front lines in the first Covid surge. Nurses from Northwell Health in New York returned that support by deploying to the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit in December when Covid surged there.
We celebrate nurses now. We call them heroes. But if we value their sacrifices and want them to be there when we need them, we must prevent a return to the poor prepandemic working conditions that led to high nurse burnout and turnover rates even before Covid.
As a nurse with extensive clinical experience in hospitals, I found it nearly impossible to guarantee safe, effective and humane care to my patients. And so I established the world’s leading research center on nursing outcomes to understand the causes of nurse understaffing in the United States and abroad and to find solutions to the problem.
The United States has a robust supply of nurses. And there is no evidence that recruits to nursing have been deterred by Covid. To the contrary, applications to nursing schools increased during the pandemic.
Death, Through a Nurse’s Eyes
A short film offering a firsthand perspective of the brutality of the pandemic inside a Covid-19 I.C.U.
I was looking through the window of a Covid I.C.U. And that’s when I realized I might see someone die. I didn’t even know who she was. But I was filled with immense grief as she edged closer to death by the hour. What I didn’t know yet was that by the time I left just two days later, at least three patients would be dead. The vaccine offers hope, but the sad truth is that the virus continues its brutal slaughter in I.C.U.s like this one in Phoenix, Ariz. The only people allowed in are health care workers. They’re overworked and underpaid in a deluged hospital. I wanted to know what it is like for them now, after a year of witnessing so much death. Eager to show us their daily reality, two nurses wore cameras so that for the first time we could see the I.C.U. through their eyes. “Unless you’re actually in there, you have no idea. Nobody can ever even imagine what goes on in there.” [MUSIC PLAYING] This I.C.U. contains 11 of the hospital’s sickest Covid patients. Most of them are in their 40s and 50s. And they are all on death’s door. It’s an incredibly depressing place. I blurred the patients faces to protect their privacy. But I also worried that blurring would rob them of their humanity. The family of this patient, the one who is rapidly declining, allowed her face to be shown. And they readily told me about her. Her name is Ana Maria Aragon. She’s a school administrator and a 65-year-old grandmother. Sara Reynolds, the nurse in charge of this I.C.U., organized a video call with Ana’s family to give them a chance to be with her just in case she didn’t make it. “It just breaks my heart when I hear families saying goodbye.” You might expect the doctors to be running the show. But it is really the nurses who are providing the vast majority of the care. “We do everything. We give them baths every night.” “Rubbing lotion on their feet.” “Shave the guys’ faces.” “Cleaning somebody up that had a bowel movement. It doesn’t even register as something gross.” “Look, I walk into the room. I say, hey, sounds like you have Covid. And I might order a chest X-ray. I might order blood work. I might order catheters. All that stuff is done by the nurse. I may have spent 10 minutes. The nurse might spend seven or eight hours actually in the room, caring for them. Let’s say there was a day that nurses didn’t come to the hospital. It’s like, why are you even opening?” “Ibuprofen.” 12-hour-plus shifts, isolated in this windowless room, these nurses survive by taking care of each other. “Aww, thank you.” And by finding small doses of levity. [MUSIC – JAMES BAY, “LET IT GO”] “(SINGING) Wrong. Breeze.” “I’m getting older now, and there’s all these new young nurses coming out. And I feel like a mom to all of them. Morgan, she’s got big aspirations. She loves to snowboard, and she’s so smart. And Deb, Deb’s just— she’s funny.” “I tease her all the time. I can tell her to do anything, and she’ll just do it because I think she’s scared of me because I just always say, make sure you have no wrinkles in those sheets.” The patients spend most of their time on their stomachs because it makes it easier to breathe. But the nurses have to turn them often to prevent pressure sores. There was one woman in her 50s who was so critical that this simple procedure risked killing her. “Even just turning them on their side, their blood pressure will drop. Their oxygen levels will drop.” “Her heart had actually stopped the day before. And so the concern was if it was going to make her heart stop again.” “Then come over. Push.” “We were all watching the monitors.” “I felt relieved like, whew, we did it.” Arizona’s a notoriously anti-mask state. And it faced a huge post-holiday surge in Covid cases. In January, the month I was there, Arizona had the highest rate of Covid in the world. As a result, I.C.U.s like this one have too many patients and not enough nurses. “Because they’re so critical, they need continuous monitoring, sometimes just one nurse to one patient with normally what we have is two patients to one nurse. But there definitely are times when we’re super stretched and have to have a three-to-one assignment.” A nurse shortage has plagued hospitals over the past year. To help, traveler nurses have had to fly into hotspots. Others have been forced out of retirement. Especially strained are poorer hospitals like Valleywise, which serves a low-income, predominantly Latino community. “Many of our patients are uninsured. Some of them have Medicaid, which pays something but unfortunately not enough.” This means they simply can’t compete with wealthier hospitals for nurses. “There is a bidding war. The average nurse here, give or take, makes about $35 an hour. Other hospitals, a short mile or two away, might pay them $100.” “We lost a lot of staff because they took the travel contracts. How can you blame them? It’s sometimes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a lot of money.” “Every single day I’m off, I get a call or a text. ‘Hey, we desperately need help. We need nurses. Can you come in?’” This nursing shortage isn’t just about numbers. “Physically it’s exhausting. We’re just running. We don’t have time to eat or drink or use the restroom.” “They have kids at home, doing online school. And I think, gosh, they haven’t even been able to check on their kids to see how they’re doing.” “My days off, I spend sleeping half the day because you’re exhausted. And eating because we don’t get to eat here often.” Nurses have been proud to be ranked the most trusted profession in America for nearly two decades. But during Covid, many worry they aren’t able to uphold the standards that earned them such respect. “I can’t give the quality of care that I normally would give.” “It’s absolutely dangerous.” “That’s demoralizing because we care. We’re nurses. It’s our DNA.” Ana had been in the hospital for over a month. Her family told me she was born in Mexico. She came to the States 34 years ago, first working in the fields before eventually landing her dream job in education. She’s beloved at her school. Former students often stop her in town and excitedly shout, Miss Anita. She was very cautious about Covid. She demanded her family always wear a mask and yelled at them to stay home. Yet, tragically, she somehow still caught it. “She had been declining over the course of several days. It’s a picture we have seen far too often that we know, this one is going to be coming soon.” Because there is no cure for Covid, the staff can only do so much. Once all the ventilator settings and the medications are maxed out, keeping a patient alive will only do more harm than good. So Ana’s family was forced to make a tough decision. “And I talked to family and let them know that we have offered her, we have given, we have done everything that we can, there’s nothing more that we can do. The family made the decision to move to comfort care.” “If I’m there while someone’s passing, I always hold their hand. I don’t want somebody to die alone. That’s something that brings me peace.” “Thank you.” “Thank you.” “Dance floor is packed. People hugging, holding hands, and almost no one wearing a face mask.” “I think like many health care workers, I’m angry a lot. And my faith in humanity has dwindled.” “How can you think this isn’t a real thing? How can you think that it’s not a big deal?” “Free your face. Free your face.” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has advocated for personal responsibility over mask mandates even though he’s been photographed maskless at a gathering and his son posted a video of a crowded dance party. “Even on the outside, they go, I don’t care. I’m not wearing a mask. I’m not getting the vaccine. That’s bullshit. The second they come into the hospital, they want to be saved. Never do they say, ‘I made the decision. I’m accepting this. Don’t do anything, doctor.’” Half a million people in this country have died from Covid. Many have been in I.C.U.s with nurses, not family members holding patients’ hands. “I always wonder, are they still going to be there when I get to work? It’s on my mind when I get home. Are they going to make it through the night? There’s one that I can think of right now.” One patient in his late 50s was so critical that he required constant supervision. Each of his breaths looked painful. “There was one day that he was kind of— he was looking a little bit better. And so he was able to shake his head and smile. And we set up a video call for him. And it was just the sweetest thing ever. I could hear his little grandson— he was probably 4 years old or so. And I saw him on the screen, too. And he was just jumping up and down, so excited. ‘You’re doing it, Grandpa. You’re doing it. We love you. Look at you. You’re getting better.’ It just broke my heart. It broke my heart. He’s one that I don’t think is going to be there when I get back on Sunday.” But I’d already been told something Sara hadn’t. The patient’s family had decided to take him off life support. “Yesterday they did? Oh. And I just think of his little grandson. And ‘you’re doing it, Grandpa. You’re doing it.’” He wasn’t the only patient who didn’t make it. When I went back to the hospital, I noticed that the bed of the patient I’d seen get flipped over was empty. My heart sank. I knew this meant she’d passed away. “What’s sad is when I go back, those beds will be full. They’ll have somebody else there just as sick with another long stretch of a few weeks ahead of them before it’s time for their family to make that decision.” I’d never before seen someone die. And even though I didn’t know these people, witnessing their deaths left me sleepless, exhausted, and depressed. It’s unfathomable to me that these nurses have gone through that every single week, sometimes every single day for an entire year. I assumed the nurses must block out all the deaths to be able to keep going, but they don’t. They grieve every single one. “I’ve always loved being a nurse. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And these last couple months, it’s definitely made me question my career choice.” And what makes their situation so tragic is that many of these nurses hide their trauma, leaving them feeling isolated and alone. “We’re the only ones that know what we’re going through. I don’t really want to tell my family about everything because I don’t want them to feel the same emotions that I feel. I don’t want them to know that I carry that burden when it— that it is a lot. I’m Mom. I’m strong. I can do anything. And I don’t want them to see that.” Leadership in the pandemic hasn’t come from elected officials or spiritual guides but from a group that is underpaid, overworked and considered secondary, even in their own workplaces. As so many others have dropped the ball, nurses have worked tirelessly out of the spotlight to save lives, often showing more concern for their patients than for themselves. I worry their trauma will persist long after we re-emerge from hibernation. Covid’s legacy will include a mass PTSD on a scale not felt since World War II. This burden should not be ignored. “Thank you. Thank you. I feel, yeah. And you’re all amazing.” [MUSIC PLAYING]
Nevertheless, we find ourselves too often with a shortage of nursing care. Many decades of research reveal two major reasons: First, poor working conditions, including not enough permanent employer-funded positions for nurses in hospitals, nursing homes and schools. And second, the failure of states to enact policies that establish and enforce safe nurse staffing; enable nurses to practice where they are needed, which is often across state borders; and modernize nurse licensing rules so that nurses can use their full education and expertise.
Training more nurses cannot solve these problems. But more responsible management practices in health care, along with better state policies, could.
Not only are states not requiring safe nurse staffing, but individuals also do not have the information and tools they need to pick hospitals and nursing homes based on nurse staffing or to advocate better staffing at their hospitals and nursing homes.
Ninety percent of the public in a recent Harris Poll agreed that hospitals and nursing homes should be required to meet safe nurse staffing standards. But powerful industry stakeholders such as hospital and nursing home organizations and often medical societies are strongly opposed and usually defeat legislation.
The New York State Legislature is the first in the postpandemic era to fail to approve proposed safe nurse staffing standards for hospitals. The bill didn’t pass, despite compelling evidence that the legislation would have resulted in more than 4,370 fewer deaths and saved over $720 million over a two-year study period through shorter hospital stays.
What are the solutions? While there are some actions the federal government could take, the states have most of the power because of their licensing authority over occupations and facilities. The hospital and nursing home industries have long failed to police their members to remove the risk of nurse understaffing. So states should set meaningful safe nurse staffing standards, following the example of California, where hospital nurses cannot care for more than five adult patients at a time outside of intensive care. State policies are tremendously influential in health care delivery and deserve greater public attention and advocacy, as they are also ripe for exploitation by special interests.
In states with restrictive nurse licensing rules, many governors used their emergency powers during Covid surges to waive restrictions. If they were not needed during a national medical emergency, why are they needed at all?
Still, the federal government has a role to play: It should require hospitals to report patient-to-nurse staffing ratios on the Medicare Hospital Compare website, because transparency motivates improvement. The federal government could incentivize the states to pass model nurse practice acts.
We need influential champions taking on special interests so that states will make policy changes that are in the public’s interest. AARP is using its clout to advocate nurse-friendly policies. But health insurers and companies such as CVS, Walgreens and Walmart that provide health care have been on the sidelines.
While we long to go back to pre-Covid life, going back to chronic nurse understaffing in hospitals, nursing homes and schools would be a big mistake. We owe nurses and ourselves better health care resources. The so-called nurse shortage has become an excuse for not doing more to make health care safe, effective and patient-centered. State legislators must do their job. Health care leaders must fund enough positions for nurses and create reasonable working conditions so that nurses will be there to care for us all.
Linda H. Aiken is a professor of nursing and sociology and the founding director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.
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