Breanna Reeves |
The healthcare industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing fields in the United States, according to the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey (ACS). As of 2019, there were 22 million workers in this industry, an industry that accounts for 14 percent of all U.S. workers.
Shakee King is one of the 22 million who work in the healthcare sector. Shakee, 23, has worked as a certified nurse assistant for approximately four years. Her job is centered around patient care and maintaining their daily lives and needs.
“Working during this pandemic has been really stressful and heart breaking. Seeing my patients suffer and passing away on an everyday basis has affected me emotionally and mentally,” Shakee explained in an email. “Honestly, being labeled as an essential worker really hasn’t had an effect on me due to the fact a lot of us have been doing this for years and are just now getting recognition.”
When the virus was initially discovered in the U.S., hospitals and medical staff were immediately overwhelmed with the number of COVID-19 cases and lack of PPE and personnel. While doctors and nurses were applauded as heroes and thanked for their service, they were suffering from the pandemic in other ways.
According to the Census, “California had 718,011 health care support workers — the largest number of any state — accounting for about 4 out of 100 workers in the state.”
Shakee is one of the many health care workers who works in San Bernardino, California. She is also part of the one-quarter of health care support workers who are Black in the industry. Additionally, women also made up three-quarters of full-time, year-round health care workers.
The pandemic exposed a plethora of economic and racial disparities within the healthcare system in the U.S. Specifically, the pandemic illuminated the fact that racial and ethnic groups are “disproportionately represented in essential work settings such as healthcare facilities, farms, factories, warehouses, food processing, accommodation and food services, retail services, grocery stores and public transportation,” as reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
This disproportionality partly explains why Black and Hispanic or Latino people have died from COVID-19 at a higher rate than non-Hispanic White people. Social determinants such as access to healthcare, income, occupation and physical environment also explained why these historically excluded groups contracted or died from COVID-19 at higher rates.
Shakee worked throughout the pandemic in the healthcare field, first in a nursing home and now at Dignity Health – Community Hospital of San Bernardino.
“At first I did not feel safe because I ended up testing positive for COVID and I knew I had (gotten) it from work due to the fact I live by myself and I didn’t go anywhere other than work,” said Shakee. “But when I recovered from it, I went back to work and noticed the changes so I felt more secure.”
Healthcare workers across the states have felt unsafe and unprotected during the pandemic due to the lack of initial protocols to protect them against COVID-19. Although the hospitals are managing better now due to the availability of PPE and improvement in case numbers, the new Delta variant has caused an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Healthcare professionals who have spent the last year and a half working during the pandemic have demonstrated different ways of coping with the harsh realities of the pandemic and healthcare system.
On Wednesday, nurses, who are members of the National Nurses United (NNU), the largest union and professional association of RNs in the country, held a national day of action as a way of demanding patient and nurse protections. Nurses from Dignity Health – Community Hospital of San Bernardino, St. Bernardine Medical Center and Desert Regional Medical Center participated in the action.
“The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the failures of our so-called health care system and revealed more clearly than ever before that our employers put profits above patients’ and nurses’ health and safety,” said NNU President Deborah Burger, RN. “Nurses across the country are standing up and demanding critical change. Let’s be clear that with the number of COVID cases going back up in some areas of the country, and more contagious and deadly variants spreading, the pandemic is not over. Our employers must act today to address serious issues in our facilities.”
Other frontline workers have advocated for their patients and health equity by getting out of the hospital and instead going out into communities to provide needed healthcare services and education.
Creating Solutions to Healthcare Inequities
Dr. Nana Afoh-Manin is an emergency physician who, like most healthcare workers, was overwhelmed by the onslaught of patients that entered the hospital as a result of COVID-19.
As an African American woman and emergency physician on the frontlines, Dr. Afoh-Manin said it was hard to keep her emotions in check, especially having to navigate the healthcare system, the number of deaths, and knowing that the Black community, her community, was impacted more than others by the virus.
COVID-19 overwhelmed hospitals and patients immediately, leaving those in the medical industry scrambling to develop new protocols that would protect everyone.
“To be honest with you, everything was so brand new and being in the Emergency Department, we thrive off of protocols. Protocols are based on best practices – a wealth of experience and research, then you put a protocol out and this is how you standardize care so that no one feels like they’re being treated differently,” Dr. Afoh-Manin said. “COVID didn’t give us time to create protocols. Every day was a new protocol.”
Dr. Afoh-Manin believed it was vital to get to people before they reached the hospital. Her determination to provide health services and health education to her community led to the creation of myCOVIDMD, a Los Angeles-based initiative that serves as a “tactical emergency response to declining trust in the medical system and growing public health crisis facing disenfranchised neighborhoods nationwide.”
“It was hard to stay in certain lanes. All of the feelings and emotions of helplessness, determination, frustration, anger and then hope and persistence all kind of infused together,” Dr. Afoh-Manin said. “So in the beginning, being at the hospital, trying to do as much as we can, I realized that I had to step out of that space and be in the community because the work that was there was so much more necessary.”
“We started myCOVIDMD Initiative and we started doing pop-up community-based testing and it was really to build a network of community health providers and advocates and health navigators around communities that just didn’t have good access and we just didn’t want to keep or put anyone in a situation where they felt they were being left behind,” Dr. Afoh-Manin explained.
The CDC reported that people from historically excluded racial and ethnic groups were more likely to have increased COVID-19 severity while being admitted to hospitals compared to White people. Such disparities can be attributed to lack of healthcare access due to reasons such as lack of transportation, child care, inability to take time off from work, cultural differences and language barriers and historical and current discrimination in healthcare systems.
“It really got to a place where there were just too many people dying despite what I was doing and advocating to do and not only the death, but the separation of families really got to me,” Dr. Afoh-Manin said. “And I know some colleagues who quit medicine during that time. I know some colleagues who committed suicide. I know some colleagues who died. So I knew for me, my mental sanity was in service to my community, that was going to save my life because it was quite daunting in the beginning.”
Dr. Afoh-Manin insisted that myCOVIDMD saved her life because the creation of the initiative marked a moment where she felt like she could do something — she could help provide a solution to health inequities within communities of color.
The initiative was launched under the Shared Harvest Fund, an organization that is fueled by volunteers who receive a stipend toward their student loans. The company’s goal is to relieve $20 million of student loan debt for Black and Brown young professionals and those who are frontline volunteers and health professionals who have been working during COVID-19.
Essential workers continue to work on the frontlines as nurses, doctors, warehouse personnel, cashiers, mental health social workers and more, and risk their health. As the new Delta variant begins to account for a majority of the new COVID-19 cases, health workers like Shakee encourage the public to stay informed about the pandemic and take proper precautions to keep themselves and others safe.
This story is presented in partnership with the Southern California Black Workers Hub. Essential Stories is a movement-building advocacy campaign created to uplift the voices and experiences of Black workers in California. You are invited and encouraged to follow this link and share your story.Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @_breereeves.