Nurses are heroes — and we're not just saying that because it's National Nurses Week. But, while many people are doing everything they can to show their appreciation right now, nurses are still carrying an extremely heavy load. One of the more pressing issues they're dealing with: an elevated risk of contracting coronavirus.
This threat is especially high among female healthcare workers, according to a Centers For Disease Control and Prevention report that was released in April. It found that 73% of U.S. healthcare workers who have gotten COVID-19 so far are women. This number is striking, considering that in the general population, coronavirus cases are spread relatively equally between men and women, and men are more likely to die from the disease, reports the journal Frontiers in Public Health. (The studies didn't specify between cisgender, nonbinary folks, and transgender women and men.)
It's impossible to conclusively say why most of the people in healthcare getting sick are women, Julia Smith, a health science and policy researcher at Simon Fraser University, tells Refinery29. But the World Health Organization reports that almost 70% of healthcare professionals worldwide are women, which may partially account for the disparity.
“If we look at the system, the roles people fill are gendered,” Smith says. Nurses throughout history have traditionally been women — same with lab techs and hospital cleaners, she adds. “You do see a gender divide. Lots of the ‘caring’ professions are dominated by women. I think it does come back to gender norms, and the expectation that this is a type of role that women are supposed to fill, and that men may be reluctant to go into because it’s not seen as a necessarily masculine job. They might be deterred because of that — or because these positions often aren’t as well-paid,” Smith says.
One reason nurses in particular may be vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 could be because they're in the most patient-facing role. They're in close contact with sick patients, performing high-risk duties such as taking temperatures and drawing blood.
“I think most nurses in America are at the greatest risk,” says Paul Pottinger, MD, a professor specializing in infectious disease at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “Other healthcare workers are at risk as well, but a COVID test is almost always administered by a nurse. That’s just one example of the kind of exposure we’re talking about.”
The frequent contact with sick patients may be compounded by nurses' inadequate access to personal protective equipment, (PPE), says Smith. “It might be that in their hospital, they don’t have the ability to speak out as easily to say, ‘I need more gloves’ and that reflects a power dynamic… For those at a lower level, it’s harder to speak out.”
Throughout the pandemic, nurses have told stories of reusing masks, sharing gowns with each other, and even wearing trash bags for protection. On Thursday morning, nurses protested in front of the White House for increased access to PPE, laying out 88 pairs of shoes on the bricked ground in Lafayette Square. The white sneakers represented each nurse who’d died from COVID-19.
“You talk about how essential, how needed, how grateful you are, and yet you throw us to the wolves,” Jean Ross, president of National Nurses United told CNN, speaking about the protest. “You throw us out onto a battlefield without armor.”
Pottinger and Smith both says that one of the most powerful ways people can help nurses is to make sure we’re calling congressmen and donating to charities that grant nurses — female, male, and nonbinary — access to PPE. Smith suggests Donate PPE, which has raised over $90,000 to get masks, gowns, and gear to healthcare staff in areas like New York City, Boston, and Southern California.
“I think that the first step is to make sure that they have all of the protective equipment they need, and that they feel safe,” Smith says. Then, she says, we can work on making sure nurses are being compensated well, have access to paid time off to relax during the crisis, and have access to not just N95 masks, but also necessities like tampons at work.
As Smith puts it: “They’re protecting the rest of us, so we need to make sure they’re also being protected and well compensated.”