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With the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, or more commonly, COVID-19), healthcare workers were thrown headlong into the fray of managing healthcare protections. In many cases, this occurred without adequate preparation and supplies.

In a survey conducted by National Nurses United, only 30% of healthcare workers reported that their employer had enough PPE on hand to sufficiently protect staff in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. Another 38% did not know. At the time of the survey, only 19% reported knowing that their employer had a plan to address when an employee contracted the virus.

Such a lack of preparation — when a pandemic of one form or another was inevitable — is unacceptable. Negligence in care facilities and at a federal level put healthcare workers at more undue risk, and the future demands better solutions.

With the right culture shifts and policies in place, we can ensure that the next public health crisis is met with a prepared and protected workforce.

Actionable Items for Healthcare Worker Protection

After the failure that has been the COVID-19 response, healthcare workers are demanding better protection now and in the future. Care facilities and government institutions alike must come together to create an actionable approach in providing the proper equipment and policies to frontline workers. This means equitable, widespread material solutions, and culture shifts that make for a safer America.

Here, we have outlined five of these actionable items to better ensure healthcare worker protections come the next public health crisis.

1. Create a More Equitable System of Care Resources and Delivery

A functioning safety net for health care does not discriminate based on locale or access to wealth. To provide proper protection to our healthcare workers, it is vital that access to resources is not placed behind a barrier of marginalization. This means taking lessons from global health exemplars to improve systems of community care and streamline emergency resource usability.

Community care workers in Malawi, for example, are funded at a national level and provide care outside of traditional clinics. Government agencies should come together with communities to create safety nets like these—especially for the most underserved and disenfranchised areas. With a comprehensive approach to healthcare solutions, governments can more equitably distribute resources. As a result, healthcare workers will be better protected against the overwhelming tides of future public health crises when they inevitably arrive.

2. Strengthen and Encourage the Growth of the Healthcare Industry

A fundamental aspect of worker protection facing the next health care crisis is the support of the industry through respect, growth, and education. CNAs, for example, are vital healthcare providers who bridge gaps in care for what is often a one-to-one-thousand ratio in terms of patients to physicians. Information about the nobility and necessity of these roles must be spread through public education systems and through incentives offered in both the public and private sectors.

With a sufficiently staffed facility, hospitals need not fear the breakdown of their ability to care for patients in the event of staff exposure. Of course, all staff should also be provided sufficient PPE to avoid exposure wherever possible.

3. Institute Price Controls on Essential Medical Equipment like PPE

One outcome of the coronavirus pandemic has been the consolidation of medical institutions as losses over $200 billion cripple the industry. When these consolidations occur, costs of medical care and equipment trend upwards. This is why a national movement to institute price thresholds and cost controls for medical equipment and pharmaceuticals will be an essential aspect of ensuring healthcare worker protection.

In the event that costs of healthcare continue to climb as they have been, care providers will be hard-pressed to purchase and maintain an inventory of PPE capable of protecting their employees. A national push to institute price controls will better prepare healthcare workers for the next crisis.

4. Shift the National Culture Towards Hygiene and Safety

Keeping not just frontline healthcare workers but all Americans safe during the next public health crisis will require a shift in culture towards the practice and celebration of better health and safety standards. We have potentially seen the beginnings of this shift in the response to COVID-19, with the embracing of masks and efficient hand washing hygiene. However, long-term protective practices will need to run deeper.

Shifting the national culture towards better hygiene must begin in early education. Children should be taught good personal hygiene habits that protect them and others. This includes staying home when they are sick.

Rather than incentivizing perfect attendance, institutions of education can incentivize the protection and care of health instead, reinforcing safe habits for life. Then, when a new pandemic emerges, the odds are better for less-overwhelmed care facilities and healthcare workers.

5. Develop Waste Reductive, Sustainable Medical Equipment Solutions

Medical waste is a problem in environmental sustainability as well as a contributor to high medical costs and limited supplies. Reportedly, care facilities spend $10 billion per year on waste management. Hazardous and regulated biochemical waste is barely a factor in this expense as well, with 85% being often-recyclable standard trash generated by hospitals.

Finding solutions to reduce hospital waste and recycle equipment can help care facilities save on costs while maintaining readiness for a greater need. In the future, healthcare workers will require a profusion of sustainable and reusable medical equipment such as N95 respirators to ensure they are well equipped in a crisis.

Preparing for the Next Public Health Crisis

COVID-19 caught the medical industry unprepared. This placed millions unnecessarily at risk when better protections could have been created through a culture of care and community support.

With more equitably distributed resources, price controls, and sustainable solutions, healthcare facilities can better be protected against health crises of any kind. These protections should be instituted at every level, through joint efforts of the public and private sector. Only then can we build a culture that celebrates health and hygiene, and in turn ensure that more lives are saved. Support frontline healthcare workers in the inevitable healthcare challenges of the future by striving for these community safety nets wherever you are.

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