By Howie Morales, Lt. Governor of New Mexico. December 25, 2020

When the World Health Organization named 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse, it had no inkling of how true that would become.

The designation was meant to honor the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, a Victorian-era reformer of hospital care, and to raise recognition of the nursing profession. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck. As the year draws to a close, we truly have learned how essential nurses are to everyone’s lives in 2020. We must not forget it.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 infections across the U.S. have soared daily, setting new records for weeks on end. More than 3,000 Americans are dying every day from the virus, and infected patients are stretching U.S. medical facilities to the breaking point. In New Mexico, the trends are no different. Intensive care unit beds are full across the state.

Who is on the front line in our hospitals today? Nurses. During the decade in which I worked in health care, I observed dedicated nurses delivering personalized, patient-centered care consistently.

New Mexico’s nurses are the backbone of the state’s health care system, and they always have been. Nurses are the ones who step forward to try to keep gravely ill patients alive, and uniquely are present to give comfort and consolation to patients’ families. They perform irreplaceable, vital work in our system of health care.

Since the onset of the pandemic in March, nurses have been in the eye of the storm, along with doctors, nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, housekeepers, maintenance, dietary, patient care techs, administration and other support staff. All of them are essential workers risking their lives during the pandemic. But are there enough nurses?

Globally the WHO identified a severe shortage of health workers, in particular nurses, who account for more than 50 percent of the current shortage in health workers. The WHO estimates that 2020 will have seen a shortage of nearly 9 million nurses.

In the U.S., employment of nurses is projected to grow 12 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau predicts that the U.S. will need an additional 200,000 plus nurses per year from now through 2026, adding up to more than one million nurses. It is a big number to reach.

In New Mexico there are just under 16,000 licensed registered nurses, clinical nurse specialists, certified nurse practitioners and certified nurse midwives actively practicing today. We know we need more of them, especially in rural, low-income and Native communities.

The state Legislature has long recognized the shortage of health care providers in New Mexico, and with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has taken positive steps to meet the health care needs of our residents. They have taken action to strengthen the state’s nursing workforce with incentives including new education loan programs, the Safe Harbor Act, authority for prescribing controlled substances, and training and retention measures. All of them are important.

The pandemic has put nurses and health care workers under enormous mental, emotional and physical strain. They worry and are exhausted by unusually long shifts day after day because of staffing issues. Nurses have been concerned about staff falling ill with the virus. The reuse of N95 masks and a lack of adequate personal protective equipment at times that may have put them at risk for infection are also serious causes for alarm. Despair and PTSD from dealing with so much death firsthand are having a harsh impact on many nurses’ lives.

When the pandemic is over, we cannot allow the current emergency standards to become the new normal in our hospitals. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that New Mexico must make investing in our nurses and health care workers a top policy priority for the future — better pay along with more respect. That is how we retain and recruit nursing and health care professionals, who also have families to raise, like the rest of us. And nurses and other health care workers should also receive pandemic hazard pay.

Traveling out to rural communities over the last weeks to talk with leaders and residents about our COVID-19 response has convinced me that New Mexico deserves more full-time public health nurses staffing our public health offices. They perform critical work with too little backup.

Nurses are natural problem solvers. They deserve a more prominent voice in making our state health policies. While they are often referred to in the media as “front-line” workers in this tragic pandemic, I think community residents have the “front-line” responsibilities: to mask up, to use social distancing and to stay home. Nurses are the last line of defense for patients and communities.