Comment

Data on long-COVID is key to protect nurses’ health

Long-COVID must be classed as an occupational disease so nurses can be protected and supported

Long-COVID must be classed as an occupational disease so it can be monitored and better understood – and to ensure nurses get the support they need

As if the pandemic’s death toll among nurses was not tragic enough, many nursing staff face a period of chronic illness as after-effects of the infection persist in the form of long-COVID.

With a projected workforce shortage of up to ten million nurses worldwide by 2030, this issue must urgently be addressed on a global scale.

For months now, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) has been warning about a COVID effect, including the mass traumatisation of the nursing workforce .

Long-COVID must be classed as an occupational disease so it can be monitored and better understood – and to ensure nurses get the support they need

As many as 122,000 NHS staff are believed to have long-COVID Picture: iStock

As if the pandemic’s death toll among nurses was not tragic enough, many nursing staff face a period of chronic illness as after-effects of the infection persist in the form of long-COVID.

With a projected workforce shortage of up to ten million nurses worldwide by 2030, this issue must urgently be addressed on a global scale.

For months now, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) has been warning about a COVID effect, including the mass traumatisation of the nursing workforce.

The emergence of long-COVID as a specific condition is yet another burden the global nursing workforce is having to bear.

The novelty of the condition and the diversity of its symptoms, occurring over an extended period of time, make it hard to treat and even harder to live with. These symptoms include: extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, problems with memory and concentration, sleep difficulties, palpitations, dizziness and pins and needles among others.

In the UK, an estimated 122,000 NHS staff have long-COVID, with likely many nurses among that number.

Recognition of long-COVID as an occupational disease

It is good to see that a group of parliamentarians is campaigning to have it recognised as an occupational disease.

This is something the ICN, alongside our colleagues in the World Health Professions Alliance, has been demanding for some time.

Occupational diseases are well monitored, data about them are recorded, and the workers who contract them have at least some chance of getting support and the compensation they deserve.

But even if long-COVID is not recognised in this way, data collection is important because it can tell us more about the disease, how it could be changing and how we might use alternative ways to prevent the virus’s spread.

Data and information-gathering is critical to our evolving understanding of COVID-19

As in so many situations, data is key.

Information from the ICN’s national nursing associations around the world has shown that, paradoxically, it is not in intensive care units that nurses are most at risk from exposure to coronavirus, but in other care settings that have traditionally been underfunded and overlooked.

Years of staff shortages, and a lack of equipment and training have been exposed by the pandemic.

The World Health Organization estimates that at least 115,000 healthcare workers worldwide have died after contracting COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic revealed uncomfortable truths about healthcare systems around the world Picture: iStock

Nurse death tolls worldwide shame many governments

The ICN has been calling for better data on COVID-19 infections and deaths for months, but we expect the true number of nurse deaths will be in the tens of thousands, which fills me with anger and sorrow.

These numbers are truly shocking, and an indictment of the many governments that have consistently failed in their duty of care to their most essential workers.

Nurses and other healthcare workers have put their lives on the line, and they have been let down through governments’ lack of foresight, planning and action to make their working environments safe.

And we must remember that the pandemic is nowhere near over yet.

That devastating death rate is still growing, as the coronavirus mutates and surges, and – until every nation has vaccinated its people – it is likely it will continue to do so.

Coronavirus data and surveillance can help avoid need for lockdowns

If we can get accurate data about infections and deaths, and we can cross-check that to people’s occupations, we can better understand where the risks are and work out better protocols for specific professions.

It will also mean it might be possible to use a more subtle approach to achieving desired public health outcomes without the necessity of the blunt instrument of total, society-wide lockdowns.

The pandemic has exposed fault lines in healthcare services across the globe: no country has really escaped from it unscathed.

Even those countries that seemed to have dealt with COVID-19 successfully are facing surges, powered by new variants, that they are having to deal with by imposing strict public health measures.

Health systems need to be improved and it is up to governments to implement this on the ground.

Without the political will, resolutions will end up like many of the personal ones many of us make at new year – unfulfilled and tinged with regret.


Further reading

Third wave of COVID-19: what might happen and how-nurses-can-prepare it


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