In September 2020, the state of Alabama was awarded $1.8 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security (CARES) Act money to support health care organizations and providers, communities, and businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare providers and services were a priority focus of the intended use of the funds. Many healthcare needs in Alabama have been met as a result of this funding, but one critical sector was ignored - our nurses.
"The CARES Act funding was supposed to bring relief to communities, institutions, small businesses, and people who had been directly impacted by COVID-19 in a provable, negative financial way," says John Zeigler, Executive Director of the Alabama State Nursing Association (ASNA). "I understand that many businesses were impacted, but what about nurses who caught COVID and were sent home? For many, their sick leave ran out and they were home for three weeks to a month and unable to get back to work until the time period was over. How do you to make up for that?"
ASNA, which represents 100,000 nurses throughout our state, conducted a survey that asked nurses to comment on the current state of their profession during the COVID pandemic. The survey identified three broad groups of nurses.
"Front-line nurses wanted to work and fulfill their duties, but they were faced with a lack of tools, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and long shifts," Zeigler says. "Many nurses also had psychological stressors that most had never experienced, such as a fear of going home and carrying the virus to an elderly parent or a husband and children. It impacted their whole life, not just their work life."
Another group of nurses, referred to as sideline nurses, had secure jobs for years until their units suddenly closed in March, April and May because hospitals stopped elective surgeries. "That put thousands of nurses out of work. Depending on how long they had been employed, some had vacation time but all were facing terrible uncertainty," Zeigler says. "They wanted to be at the hospital serving people, but they were put on the sidelines and were suffering in a different way."
A third group of nurses are the senior nursing students who have graduated and taken their licensing exams and are ready to enter the workforce. "Because of unit closures and hiring freezes, they are in limbo. Hospitals can't do training or orientation, because there is no staff to do it," Zeigler says. "When they signed up to become a nurse, they made that commitment in their hearts. They are ready to go to work."
Lindsey Harris, DNP, FNP-BC, President of ASNA and a UAB nurse, experiences the daily struggles of nurses on the front lines. "Right now, nurses are stressed as hospitals put in more COVID beds, which means fewer beds for other acute patients," she says. "So, it is a stressful time for us to be left out of the funding, but as nurses we remain resilient and continue to do what we have to do to care for our patients."
Harris says the job is hard when you are short-staffed, because nurses are leaving for other hospitals or for travel nurse assignments. "Through the CARES Act, we asked for funding for our struggling nurses, but many of them had to leave their jobs," she says. "So many nurses have been impacted financially, but I don't want to make this all about finances. Nurses do what they have to do to help others. At the same time, we are putting our lives and our families' lives on the line."
With the new Coronavirus vaccine ready to be disseminated, Harris points out that nurses will be educating the public about the vaccine and will be the ones to administer the shots. "We as nurses are considered the most trusted profession, and nurses are utilized in every aspect. We are treating and educating patients, administering vaccines and so much more. I wish we had received some funding, because we are part of the providers at the forefront of the virus," she says.
Harris wants nurses to know that ASNA is the voice for nurses. "We advocate for them and we speak out about the profession. We are here for them," she says. "I invite all nurses to join ASNA at alabamanurses.org and add their voices to advocate for their profession."
Zeigler points out that because of this crisis, the stability of nursing has turned in many ways. "The appeal of stability and the loyalty of a certain institution in many places around the country have been rattled, and that is not healthy for our system. We just hope that the governmental policy makers and employers will help take care of our nurses so the nurses can take care of us," he says.