NORTH ATLANTA, Ga. — The coronavirus has killed more than 7,000 Georgians. Many patients have taken their last breath at hospitals, without loved ones nearby. But when a healthcare professional was by their side, it’s likely that worker was a woman.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women hold 76 percent of all health care jobs. Females also hold 77 percent of social work positions, two-thirds of grocery store and fast-food jobs, and 52-percent of roles deemed essential.
The weight of the global pandemic is on their backs.
Among the women on the frontline is Darice Stein, a clinical development specialist with Northside Hospital Forsyth. Stein said she has worn many hats since the coronavirus emerged and rapidly changed life in the intensive care unit. Information flooded in and seemed to evolve by the minute.
“It was priority number one to ensure our staff caring for patients were safe, with proper personal protective equipment and education to arm them,” Stein said. “All the while caring for a new population of patients with a pandemic that had a disease course that is so unique and would change or decline so rapidly.”
As quickly as the virus moved, Stein said the patient population rose just as fast.
“While other departments closed, we in the ICU and the general hospital were planning for the influx of more COVID-19 patients with preparations of increasing staffing, expanding into other floors, opening a secondary ICU to offer and staff more critical care beds,” Stein said. “Not only were our patients and families frightened, but you could also feel our staff’s anxiety.”
She said, despite their fears, the ICU staff at Northside Hospital Forsyth continued to push through, pull together, and give great care to their patients and each other.
“I am not sure I can articulate how proud I am of the ICU staff and Northside as an organization,” Stein said. “We have had our disappointments along the way, but we have also celebrated so many victories with patients since the pandemic became our new normal.”
Fatalities in the field
Some in the medical field made the ultimate sacrifice while working during a pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 733 American healthcare workers have died from coronavirus as of Oct. 1. But a just released report by National Nurses United claims more than 1,700 healthcare workers have died from COVID-19. Amnesty International reports more than 7,000 have died globally.
Among those fallen professionals was 42-year-old Diedre Wilkes, a mammogram technician at Piedmont Newnan hospital. Wilkes’ body was found at her home in March while her young child was nearby.
Emory Professor Ruomeng Cui said history is repeating itself.
“The last time we saw that was the Spanish Flu. The exact same phenomenon,” Cui said. “Nurses, they were women, who suffered more every time during crisis. More women were dying. More women were on the frontline.”
By August, the White House declared educators among essential workers. Cui released a study the month before that detailed the damage COVID-19 had done to productivity among female academics.
“What we found, in just 10 weeks after the lockdown, although the total research productivity increased by about 35-percent, female academics’ productivity actually dropped by as much as 18-percent relative to that of male academics,” she said.
The study began in May, two months after lockdowns began. It looked at multiple academics from 25 countries with backgrounds in finance, marketing, law and more. Cui said the United States is among the 21 nations showing the most gender inequality for accepted research papers.
Trouble on the home front
Cui was inspired to conduct this study after witnessing her homebound female colleagues distracted by household and family responsibilities during meetings, but not her male colleagues. She said women falling behind in academia is dangerous.
“Female faculties might be innovative in certain areas or aspects,” Cui said. “If their potential, their talents are limited, that will definitely be harmful for the society in terms of pushing out innovative ideas and work.”
The disparities continue on the frontline when it comes to compensation, as well. That’s according to the National Women’s Law Center. Their research shows female grocery store workers earn an average of $3,000 less annually than their male counterparts. Female registered nurses earn an average of $65,000 annually, while their male counterparts earn $71,000. There are similar wage gaps for childcare workers, home health and personal care aides.
To take some of the burden off female frontline and essential workers, Cui said things need to change. She said domestic responsibilities must be divided, and employers should offer childcare support, parental leave, evaluation adjustments and better compensation.
Cui said a lot of work remains on the home front and in the workplace. But, she is seeing improvements.
“People care more and more,” she said. “More organizations and institutions are advocating for equity, diversity and inclusion. I think that’s really a good message. But it’s just so sad that we have to fight for things that are so obvious.”