Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses of color in Florida face issues surrounding ‘structural racism’

By: - July 14, 2021 7:00 am

Registered nurses and healthcare workers protest what they say is a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) available for frontline workers. April 13, 2020. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

The nursing field has been rife with systemic racism and inequities in health care settings across the country, with nurses of color disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to national nursing organizations.

That said, the National Nurses United announced that registered nurses at several Florida hospitals will tackle systemic racism within their profession through a new committee that promotes diversity and equity.

National Nurses United (NNU), a union representing RNs, said this week that nurses at 10 hospitals in the state have ratified a new three-year collective bargaining agreement. In the contract, the union highlighted provisions including enhanced safety protections for patients and nurses and the new committee to discuss “structural racism.”

NNU said in a written statement that the committee will address racism in the nursing field, including “barriers to practice and ensuring a nursing workforce that is reflective of the community.”

Chuleenan Svetvilas, an NNU spokeswoman, said in an email to the Florida Phoenix that “the committee will meet four times per year on paid time.”

In fact, a March report from NNU, entitled “Sins of Omission,” underscores how COVID-19 has disproportionately harmed registered nurses of color because more Latino and Black nurses have succumbed to the illness compared to white nurses.

According to the report, 314 registered nurses in the United States had died of COVID-19, as of Feb. 11, the latest available data. However, deaths among nurses of color represented 170, or 54.1 percent, of those deaths, compared to 45.9 percent for white nurses.

Meanwhile, the American Nurses Association (ANA) and other groups representing nurses of color launched in late January a commission to “examine the issue of racism within nursing nationwide,” according to a press release.

The groups reported that nurses of color have been dealing with unfair workplace practices, including more Black and Latino nurses caring for patients with COVID, compared to white nurses.

The National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing also examines the effects of racism “on nurses, patients, communities, and health care systems, to motivate all nurses to confront systemic racism.”

The commission is also led by the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) and holds monthly meetings featuring scholars and other speakers who are experts on the issue.

For example, a survey of nurses conducted by the American Nurses Foundation in July 2020 found that 58 percent of the Black nurses who were surveyed said they were more likely to be in roles that “provide direct care to COVID patients.”

Overall, 10,099 nurses were surveyed about their experiences in health care settings.

Sixty-three percent of Latino respondents said they were likely to offer direct care to COVID patients, compared to only 49 percent of the white nurses.

Martha A. Dawson, president and CEO of the National Black Nurses Association, said in a written statement:

“Change starts with leadership and too many of our nurse leaders are uncomfortable with open dialogue about racism, sexism, and classism, which means they have to examine their own practices and commit to healing and leading differently. For too long, our profession has treated racism as a small, localized abnormality when it is an open wound.”

Amid the pandemic, RNs in Florida have struggled to gain access to supplies of personal protective equipment to shield them against COVID-19, according to NNU.

According to a summary of the new contract, all nurses at those Florida hospitals will be “guaranteed access to the highest level of personal protections,” such as “adequate supplies of single-use PPE.”

As previously reported by the Phoenix, nurses have held protests at various hospitals in the state to address shortages in PPE and staffing.

Florida nurses were pleased that the contract seeks to ensure that hospitals are meeting safe staffing requirements, Samantha Brown, RN at Medical Center of Trinity, said in a written statement.

The “RN Professional Practice Committee” will also be able “to meet with managerial department heads on patient care concerns,” according to the summary of the contract.

“These provisions provide new mechanisms for our collective voice to press for the highest standard of care and protection for our patients,” Brown said.

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.

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