A survey of hundreds of nurses at hospitals across the Garden State suggests that nurses of color were enduring a dual pandemic at least through much of 2020 — the disproportionate threat of COVID-19, along with age-old racism in the workplace.

A Rutgers School of Nursing study, published in Behavioral Medicine, found that nurses' emotional distress was elevated in part by COVID concerns — the virus was impacting individuals of color, and healthcare workers of color, at higher rates compared to white individuals — along with workplace racism experiences, which were perhaps amplified by the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

"The psychological effects of nurses' workplace COVID exposure and worry will likely last far into the future," said Charlotte Thomas-Hawkins, study lead and an associate dean in the nursing school. "And the persistence of workplace racism will continue to inflict individual-level psychological harm among nurses of color unless it is effectively ameliorated."

In the study of nearly 800 nurses working in acute care hospitals, nonwhite nurses reported significantly higher levels of emotional distress and overall worry about COVID-19, researchers say. Nonwhite nurses also perceived more negative racial climates, with Black nurses reporting the most negativity. In addition, nurses of color experienced more racial microaggression experiences, such as casual insults and slights, according to the survey conducted in November 2020.

"Public health crises come and go. Racism was here before COVID and it's going to be here after COVID," said Thomas-Hawkins, who's had her own share of negative experiences working as a Black nurse.

Thomas-Hawkins said the study's results should be a message for leadership at hospitals and other workplaces.

"It's time for leadership to acknowledge that racism is a problem that needs to be addressed," she said, noting that nurses of color make up just 28% of the nursing workforce.

Diverse representation in leadership roles would help the matter, Thomas-Hawkins suggested. Leaders also want to make sure there are no seemingly racist practices related to hiring and promotions.

"And there needs to be self-awareness training," she said. "So that individuals can recognize their biases."

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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