How COVID-19 has affected Black and Latinx healthcare workers

A new study highlighted the challenges for those working in supportive healthcare roles. Those workers need more support, the lead author says.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare leaders have repeatedly said they are concerned about burnout among doctors and nurses.

However, there are other members of the healthcare workforce, such as nurse assistants, therapists, and food and custodial staff, among others, who need more attention. Many of those workers are members of minority groups.

A new Rutgers University study of Black and Latinx healthcare workers underscores the stress, fear and confusion they have experienced in the pandemic.

Zorimar Rivera-Núñez, an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Public Health, said in an interview some members of the healthcare workforce have been marginalized for some time.

“Healthcare leaders should start paying attention and offer more resources,” Rivera-Núñez said.

Healthcare workers are making clear they need better pay and more support, she said.

“We want to retain them, moving forward,” she said. “We can see how many have left the workforce. We have to find ways to retain them and offer them the emotional and mental support that they need.”

The Rutgers researchers interviewed 17 Black and Latinx women who work in support positions in healthcare. They worked in hospitals, nursing homes and home care sites.

Some of the workers said they struggled with having to work additional hours and, particularly earlier in the pandemic, a lack of personal protective equipment.

The study found that COVID-19 testing of some workers was inconsistent. Some were regularly tested, while others said they were tested sporadically.

Workers also had another fear about testing positive for COVID-19: losing time at work and losing money.

‘They wanted to get tested,” Rivera-Núñez said. “If they tested positive, some feared they’d lose their job or their salary for that week.”

Some of the workers surveyed said they had some reluctance to discuss possible exposures to COVID-19 for fear of missing work and not getting paid. Some also were worried about being ostracized from fellow employees.

“It creates weird dynamics with co-workers,” Rivera-Núñez said.

Some Black and Latinx workers struggled with vaccine hesitancy and were concerned about side effects, researchers found. Some workers eventually became more comfortable with the vaccine as they saw their co-workers get the shots and did additional research.

Members of minority communities often have a mistrust of the medical establishment, which some healthcare leaders acknowledge is well-earned, Rivera-Núñez noted.

Some of that mistrust dates back decades to the notorious Tuskegee study of syphilis, where Black individuals weren't provided treatments and didn’t have the chance to give informed consent. Healthcare leaders said some mistrust continues today, with minority patients saying they weren’t given all treatment options or their concerns were dismissed.

Even for members of minority groups who work in the healthcare field, the skepticism of the medical community persists for some.

“It’s a real and fair struggle,” Rivera-Núñez said. “The history is there for us to see it and to learn from it.”

Some of the healthcare workers in the study said they struggled to cope with the changing nature of their jobs during the pandemic. Some would have to take on new responsibilities and said they received little training for their new duties.

For some home healthcare workers, the pandemic posed steep challenges. Some workers who typically visited patients in person on a regular basis were now seeing them remotely. They also had to instruct patients on the technology for virtual visits.

The study underscores the need to offer a better, more supportive work environment for healthcare workers in support roles.

Rivera-Núñez said it’s important to understand nursing assistants, therapists and others in support roles should be considered healthcare heroes.

“They have to be there every day for healthcare settings to work and function every day,” she said.

The study participants were interviewed between December 2020 and February 2021. The full study appears on PLOS ONE.