Ana Sanchez-Birkhead: Utah’s Hispanics are bearing the brunt of COVID-19. Now we must boost the ranks of Hispanic nurses

In this May 10, 2020 photo, a candle burns at a makeshift altar for Reyna Martinez's father, who died of COVID-19, in Martinez's home in the Queens borough of New York. Martinez lost both parents to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit New York's Hispanic population particularly hard. (AP Photo/Emily Leshner)

As Utah takes stock of the rising toll of COVID-19 cases, one brutal statistic stands out: the toll of the coronavirus on the Hispanic community. Despite making up just 14 percent of state’s population, we accounted for 39 percent of cases.

Here’s another sobering statistic: Just 2.2 percent of the state’s nurses are of Hispanic origin. Of course, all nurses are health care heroes during a global crisis. But Hispanic nurses are especially important when tending to patients who share their culture and speak their language. When patients are restricted from seeing friends and family, this familiarity brings unimaginable comfort.

As a nursing educator, I’ve long been frustrated by this lack of representation, especially given the growth of Utah’s Hispanic population. Census Bureau data released last summer found that the state’s Hispanic population grew by more than 25 percent between 2010 and 2018. And so, I’ve spent years touring the state, trying to recruit Latinos into our honorable profession. I’m hoping that the outsized impact of COVID-19 on Utah Hispanics, is the wakeup call our community needs: More Latinos should join the ranks of health care workers.

It’s not just Hispanic patients who stand to benefit. Utah is facing a long-time shortage of skilled nurses. According to data from University of Utah’s Gardner Policy Institute, in 2018, about one in 10 Utahns is 65 or older, but that number will be one in five by 2065.

On my travels, I’ve seen why more young Hispanics don’t consider nursing. There are few role models to inspire a new generation of nurses, and many students blame a lack of confidence. They worry the educational requirements are too difficult and that nursing programs are too competitive.

Now that health care workers are being celebrated across the globe, I hope the field’s increased visibility will encourage more students to consider nursing. But we also need our outreach to start as early as elementary school. We must encourage junior high and high school counselors to present nursing as a rewarding and financially stable career option. In fact, the average registered nurse’s salary in Utah was nearly $68,000.

We can also bolster our ranks by embracing Utah’s more than 14,000 DACA-eligible immigrants. Across the nation, they’re on the front lines taking care of coronavirus patients as registered and vocational nurses, medical assistants and nursing assistants. There is no more important time for Congress to act to protect this next generation of health care workers.

Finally, the U.S. government can make it easier for recent immigrants who’ve studied nursing in their native countries to quickly earn their credentials here. Under our current licensing program, we lose valuable time requiring that qualified nurses retrain from scratch. We need a testing program that recognizes their education and experience and quickly gets them bedside in our state’s hospitals, schools and nursing homes.

Historically, immigrant health care professionals have been a reliable pipeline for our industry. Nearly 16 percent of the country’s nurses and 22 percent of nursing assistants are foreign-born, according to the New American Economy Research Fund. And there are excellent candidates from Latin American countries waiting to jump in where they’re needed most.

Our field welcomes compassionate nurses, no matter where they’re from. But we especially need talented and dedicated Latino nurses to keep up with the growth of our community and to offer a helping hand to our most vulnerable immigrants. We bring a cultural philosophy of caring that benefits everyone. We see nursing as a mission that treats patients in a holistic way by paying attention to one’s mind, body and spirit. That’s how we heal each other, and that’s how we will collectively heal. As the ugly headlines of COVID-19 hopefully fade in the coming months, that will be our legacy.

Ana Sanchez-Birkhead

Ana Sanchez-Birkhead is associate professor at the College of Nursing at the University of Utah and president of the Unidos en Utah chapter of the Hispanic Nurses Association.