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National survey of primary health workers during COVID-19 pandemic finds fear, unsafe working conditions

George Washington University report provides a snapshot of health professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic and recommendations to prepare for the future.

A new report summarizes the findings of a national survey of primary care health workers during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and found that many reported unsafe working conditions and retaliation for raising concerns to employers.

The survey, launched in May 2020 by staff and student researchers from George Washington University, provides a snapshot of the experiences of primary care health professionals providing care to millions of Americans during the pandemic.

“This survey gives a voice to American health workers who have been on the forefront of COVID-19,” said David Michaels, professor of environment and occupational health at George Washington University and former administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

“Health professionals have valuable first-hand knowledge about this pandemic and this report provides recommendations that can help keep the US on track now and in the future.

” There are more than 18 million health workers in the US, and those on the front lines of the pandemic have a lot to say about what needs to be done to prevent future exposure to the virus and other problems.

The GW researchers developed an online survey to better understand health workers’ experiences, including questions about working conditions and safety-related concerns.

About 1,200 health professionals from all 50 states and the District of Columbia completed the survey, and the GW researchers analyzed the data collected over a two-month period from the beginning of May 2020 to the end of June 2020.

The following concerns were repeatedly mentioned in the answers to the survey:

  • Frustration about unsafe working conditions, especially the lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment.
  • Cases of retaliation and sometimes bullying for raising safety concerns to employers.
  • The perception that employers prioritized hospital profits over employee safety and created an unhealthy work environment where employees felt devalued and threatened.

Many of the respondents were nurses and the majority worked in a hospital setting.

For safety reasons, many health workers cited the lack of personal protective equipment during the early days of the pandemic.

Respondents also said they lived with the fear of losing their jobs if they expressed concerns, and they also expressed frustration with constantly changing employer and national guidelines.

“The responses to the survey provide important insights that cannot be gleaned from statistics alone,” said Nathan L. McCray, a lead author of the report.

“Employees expressed a range of experiences during the first few months of the pandemic, including positive ones and others that were unbearable.

” McCray worked on the report while a research associate at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health.

For example, some employees reported that their employer took steps to provide them with the protective equipment they needed to stay safe, while others described them being devalued or treated as disposable items.

Still others said they were afraid of getting sick or bringing the virus home to vulnerable family members.

“This survey was anonymous and health professionals said they appreciated having a safe place to share their concerns,” said Brenda M. Trejo Rosas, a research associate and doctoral student at the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health and lead author. , said.

“Our report exposes the impact of power dynamics on the work environment.” The survey also asked frontline workers for solutions to some of the problems they described in the survey.

Health professionals stressed the need for improved communication and worker protection policies based on scientific evidence.

They also advised the federal government to ramp up the national stockpile of personal protective equipment.

Such a supply would help the nation better prepare for the next wave of this pandemic or a future pandemic, they said.

In addition, the health workers who took part in the survey called on employers to treat them with respect and demanded labor rights such as time off, mental health care and zero tolerance for bullying or retaliation.

Authors of the report include McCray, Trejo Rosas, Shamet Qejvani, Shateara Hall, Bani Bhattacharya, Laura M. Neumann, and Ans Irfan – all of whom collaborated on the study as part of the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health Department of Environmental and Occupational Health.

Multiple Milken Institute School of Public Health students also assisted in the qualitative coding and promotion of the survey.

Michaels and Melissa Perry, a professor and chair of the Department of Environment and Occupational Health, provided guidance in preparing the report.

The McElhattan Foundation and the Institute for New Economic Thinking financially supported the survey and report.