Photo courtesy of University of Missouri (showme.missouri.edu)

One troublesome aspect of this fourth COVID surge is the alarming report that U.S. hospitals are experiencing a severe nursing shortage, a fact that exacerbates an already perilous situation when you consider the enormous role nurses play in patient care and recovery.

But what has been ignored from COVID’s 2020 introduction to our present COVID situation is the pandemic’s impact on Black nurses.

The Defender spoke with Black nurses and healthcare professionals to see how this nursing shorting is playing out on the pandemic frontlines from their perspective.

IS NURSE SHORTAGE REAL

Dr. Cleve James

“There is a shortage of nurses, because some are leaving the profession, while some become travel nurses, relocating to where they can make a better reimbursement for the hours of work,” said Dr. Cleve James, an internist here in Houston who sees patients in his clinic and area hospitals. “Whether it’s being accelerated because of COVID, I don’t know. But there’s a shortage and it’s affected the care of patients.”

Dr. Lola Denise Jefferson, founder, president emeritus and executive director of the Fort Bend County Black Nurses Association, says the nursing shortage means those on duty are tired from working extra shifts.

“Once in a while, it’s fun, the extra money, but working extra shifts is almost a necessity and you feel bad if you don’t work extra,” said Jefferson.”

She added that experienced nurses make between $35-$45/ hour. However, because they are in such demand, hospitals are offering nurses much more.

“We’re talking nurses are making $97/hour and we work 12-hour shifts. And if you’re willing to go down the Brownsville, TX, near the Texas-Mexico border, or you’re willing to go up to New York, you can be paid as much as $150/hour.”

Jefferson added that nurses facing massive education or health-related bills see such moves as a way to pay them off in a short amount of time.

Terri Teketeke Dickerson, a mental health nurse, adjunct instructor at College of the Mainland teaching in the certified nursing program and the Health Ministry coordinator for the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church, says the nurse “shortage” is less because nurses are leaving and more because the patient load is rising.

“The way it was explained to me was we need additional nurses so we can see more people because being a mental health nurse, there’s a lot of people who need help and we can only give so much help in 24 hours,” shared Dickerson.

FOURTH COVID SURGE

When asked if this most recent COVID surge is different than previous ones, Jayme Patrick, a registered nurse who works in the ICU of one of the city’s acute care hospitals, said, “One hundred percent, we’ve been seeing a surge like none other.”

“In our hospital our whole entire second floor has been made into an ICU for critical care patients that are COVID positive,” said Patrick. “So, yes, this fourth surge and the nurse shortage have affected my workload greatly.

Jayme Patrick

“Usually in the ICU, we get two very critically ill patients. At this point, we’re getting three patients, which is a big deal. We’re down so many nurses because they themselves have been exposed or are COVID positive. So, not only is it affecting the community, it’s affecting nurses, as well.”

Patrick says this fourth COVID surge has brough a wave of young people into the ICU.

“Our youngest patient, I believe was 26-years-old, on a breathing machine. And I’m seeing this as a 31-year-old woman. The younger community is greatly impacted by this variant. And that was one of the reasons why I decided to get vaccinated myself.”

Dr. James, a millennial, who says the vast majority of current COVID patients are unvaccinated, sees exactly what Patrick sees, more young people contracting and even dying of COVID.

“I’ve had patients who have expired (died) and they’re younger than me. They had no medical issues. The only reason they expired is because they didn’t have the vaccine,” he declared.

This rise in deaths, especially of young adults, and so much of the public’s noncompliance with COVID safety protocols, has impacted nurses personally and collectively.

“I can say that my anxiety is a bit high and I am experiencing burnout,” shared Dickerson. “But I keep going because I just feel being on the job is what I need to be doing at this time.”

Collectively, Patrick says nurses are suffering from “sympathy fatigue” and “decision fatigue,” i.e. impaired decision-making ability.

BLACK NURSE IMPACTS

Even with all the media coverage the pandemic has received, little notice is being paid to its impact on Black nurses, except by the nurses themselves.

Patrick says the decision to get vaccinated played out differently for Black nurses.

“On my unit, we (the Black nurses) were the very last ones to get vaccinated, and that was kind of a running joke. But just considering our history in this nation, we just had that extra layer to fight through mentally,” said Patrick, who views COVID misinformation circulating within the Black community as “Black-on-Black crime.”

“I truly believe that misinformation is killing us, even where the Tuskegee experiment is concerned. Nearly 80% of Black people believe our people were injected with syphilis, and that’s not true. They already had syphilis. They weren’t treated at the end of the experiment when they found out that this disease was completely treatable.”

Dr. Lola Denise Jefferson

What Jefferson said is “killing” Black nurses is seeing the care, or lack thereof, Black COVID patients receive.

“When we see Black COVID patients come in, they get the same treatment, but maybe not necessarily. As Black people, we’re still at the back of the line,” said Jefferson, who pointed out that Black nurses seek to make up the slack with extra care.

“We nurses take care of Black people. We try to give them everything that is owed to them or that they may need. We kind of foresee what their needs are because we’re coming from the same Black culture.”

While providing this extra care, Jefferson said Black nurses still have to contend with inequalities that existed pre-COVID, including being paid less than their counterparts, yet receiving heavier duties, and being promoted less frequently.

“We’re on the floor, but we’re not in charge. But when it comes time to do something, they know Black nurses know their stuff. And they’re also working a lot of hours, unfortunately. Also, economically, Black nurses are taking care of their families plus cousin Pookie. And since Pookie and them often aren’t working due the pandemic, they’re having to help that way. So, it’s really bad on us.”

PREDICTIONS FOR SCHOOL YEAR

Patrick sees COVID cases increasingly rising for children, and then passing it onto adults.

“And I don’t think it’s helpful that there’s no mask mandate with a respiratory disease. I don’t think that that’s going to help,” stated Patrick.

Terri Teketeke Dickerson

Dickerson, a former K-12 teacher, believes all safety practices possible should be utilized by schools, views in-person instruction as critical, especially for elementary-aged children. “I understand there’s COVID going on, so we have to put those safe practices in place to protect our children. But at the same time, we still have to let them be children. They still have to run, they still have to play and they have to be with their friends. That socialization is a big part for kids in their younger years.”

MESSAGE TO BLACK PEOPLE

JAYME PATRICK: I’m vaccinated, I believe that the risk of the vaccine was less of a risk of than contracting COVID unprotected. In general, I understand the hesitancy with the vaccine, but you just have to be real with yourself, real with the way that you’re living. For some people, the vaccine is the answer, especially if you have a lot of co-morbidities or if you don’t eat the healthiest and you smoke. Just be real with yourself and think outside of yourself. It’s not just you, it’s your brother and sister. It’s your community. It’s not just about you. You have to filter what you see, here and what you read. Anybody can put anything on the web. Make sure you’re reading credible sources as you continue to make informed decisions for yourself and for your family. Mask up, man. Mask up, wash the hands and continue to social distance.

DR. CLEVE JAMES: The problem with the vaccine, like all vaccines, there are side effects. And the side effects are real. So, you have to weigh the odds of dying if you get infected and the odds of having a side effect that’s very negative. The fact is the side effects that are life-changing are very rare. So, you have to choose which vaccine you’re going to get. Are you going to get the mRNA (Pfizer or Moderna)? Are you going to get the adenovirus vaccine (Johnson & Johnson)? The point is, you have to get exposed. If you want to take the risks and get exposed from natural exposure, which is highly risky, I wouldn’t advise it. I would advise to get a vaccine. You have to decide on your own terms, which one you’re going to get. You have to decide all those things, but you’ve got to get exposed. How are you going to get exposed as the only question? Definitely. I recommend wearing a mask. If you’re going to a place where there’s a lot of people, you should wear a mask. If you’re in a train station, if you’re in a building with an elevator, you’ve got to wear a mask. If you’re in the open, in the street, well, maybe you could take the mask off. It’s just common sense.

DR. LOLA DENISE JEFFERSON: If that person with the Delta, or any virus, even the flu, if they wear their mask, they keep it to themselves. And when you keep it to yourself, then we can get this thing under wraps. Then we can get this thing on the reps. Now, the other thing, when the vaccine came out in January 2021, December 2020, I was against it. I wasn’t having any brand new medication that hadn’t been tested. I wasn’t having it. So, people were ready for it. They didn’t understand what was going on. And they got the shot real quick. In a month’s time, they were able to prove that the people that had received the vaccine did not end up, when they did get COVID, they did not end up on a ventilator. They didn’t end up on a respirator life support and they didn’t end up dead. So, I said, find me up. And even though I had a bad reaction this after the second shot on the second day, after I called 9-1-1, I started to feel better. I can’t wait to get the third shot because I have not, thank you Jesus, by the grace of God, I have not had COVID. My nephew has had it. My sister has had it. And I’m in close proximity with them, but thankfully I have not had it. And I want to continue that. So, people would just follow that and help us, we can get this thing under wraps.

TERRI TEKETEKE DICKERSON: COVID is real and it’s here and it’s now. So, we have to deal with what’s going on right now so that we can prevent it from devastating us in the future. We can’t predict the future. So, what we have to do is everything we can to stay safe. I was resistant in the beginning. I was hesitant as far as the vaccine, because I didn’t know enough about it. But I always say because of peer pressure and what I mean by peer pressure is because of the love of my family and my friends, that I got vaccinated. Yes, I am at high risk. And I understood that I needed to get the vaccination from that point. But it was more because of my friends and family. I want to do everything I can to protect myself in order to protect my family and friends. And if we think about that and get outside of ourselves and being so stubborn, because the issue I see personally is that people don’t want to be told what to do. Okay. We’re not telling you what to do. Like on my job, they don’t tell us what to do. They just highly recommend it. And you make your choice. But remember, whatever choice we make, we have to live with it. And we see it every day. People that were staunch about not getting the vaccine, COVID wasn’t real until they are diagnosed with COVID, then they get the treatment, then they get the vaccines. Now they’re being tested daily. So, you can either protect yourself and be safe or choose not to. I mean, if you think you have a better solution, that’s fine. You have a choice. But me as for me and my house, we choose to be safe.