More needs to be done to protect nursing workforce: PAHO director

Nurses play a central role in vaccination programs and in caring for those that fall ill. Countries must double investments and improve policies to support the “backbone” of health care systems.

As COVID cases and hospitalizations once again rise in the Americas, including the Caribbean — by 12.7 percent since last week — the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Dr. Carissa F. Etienne has called on countries to urgently increase investments to develop and retain the nursing workforce.

“Throughout the Americas, nurses bravely faced the brunt of the pandemic, and many struggled with burnout and mental health conditions,” with some moving out of area and others leaving the workforce altogether, said Dominican-born Dr. Etienne in a media briefing at PAHO headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.

She noted that nurses are the “backbone” of the healthcare workforce, especially during the pandemic, accounting for 56 percent of the health staff and providing primary care services, mental health support, and protecting the wellbeing of individuals, communities and families.

Ahead of International Nurses Day, celebrated on May 12, the PAHO director thanked nurses for playing a central role in caring for those with COVID-19, and for being key to rolling out 1.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine in the region.

“Today, nurses shoulder the dual burden of caring for COVID patients and catching up those who have missed routine health check-ups over the past two years,” Dr. Etienne said.

But with a nursing deficit estimated at 1.8 million nurses by 2030 in the Americas, she said it is crucial that “we double our investments in growing our nursing workforce, and care for existing nurses so they can continue to care for us.”

PAHO Director, Dr. Carissa F. Etienne.  Associated Press / Pablo Martinez Monsivais/File

The PAHO director urged countries to implement clear policies to develop and retain the health workforce, including through adequate compensation and the development of senior leadership opportunities, as well as by elevating nurses and midwives within the government and Ministries of Health.

She said supporting the mental health of nurses is also crucial, with PAHO’s COVID-19 Health care workers study showing that almost one quarter of health care workers interviewed in 2020 presented symptoms of a depressive episode.

PAHO said some countries are addressing this through the implementation of mental health services and hotlines.

In addition, PAHO said it is rolling out a self-care course catered specifically to health workers, and, on Friday, May 6, will launch a High-Level Commission on Mental Health and COVID-19 to take a closer look at the impact of the pandemic on mental health in the Americas.

In terms of the COVID-19 situation in the region, PAHO said more than 616,000 new cases were reported in the Americas over the past week, and over 4,200 deaths.

In the Caribbean, PAHO said new infections increased by 15.4 percent, and deaths increased for the third consecutive week – by 39.6 percent.

While deaths continued to decline in Central America, PAHO said the number of new infections rose by 53.4 percent, with three out of seven countries reporting increases.

In North America, PAHO said cases increased by 27.1 percent in the United States, while Canada and Mexico reported declines in new infections.

South America reported an overall case decrease of 8 percent, although seven countries reported an increase in new infections, according to PAHO.


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