Wisconsin Nurses Respond Now: A Priority Training Opportunity

Madison icon Barbara Nichols, Executive Director Wisconsin Center for Nursing

Inequality in infections, hospitalizations and deaths continue as the U.S. surpassed 500,000 COVID-19 related deaths. The persistent undercurrent of disparities in health care emphasizes the urgent need for a better prepared nursing workforce.

That’s the focus of an online training program called the Wisconsin Nurses Respond Now Priority Training Project. The Wisconsin Center for Nursing (WCN), in collaboration with the National Registered Nurses Case Management Training Center (NRNCMTC) and Bader Philanthropies, established this important initiative designed to identify at-risk and vulnerable populations dealing with COVID-19 from a nurses’ perspective.

WCN Executive Director Barbara L. Nichols is the brains behind the urgent educational training project. Under her leadership, WCN identified the need to better prepare the nursing workforce to ensure public health initiatives are supported and vulnerable populations were identified.  

“The Wisconsin Center for Nursing does annual surveys of the nursing workforce. The survey identified that nurses in Wisconsin are prepared for disasters, like fires, plane crashes or hurricanes, but not public health pandemics,” said Nichols, a Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing.

Because of the emergent and prolonged effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses must be able to receive this information easily and in a way that allows for the rapid translation of new knowledge into day-to-day practice, she said.

Nichols is a trailblazer in the nursing field and Madison royalty. She was the first Black president of the American Nurses Association. A graduate of Case Western Reserve University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Nichols is a former CEO of CGFNS International.  In 1970, she was elected president of the Wisconsin Nurses Association, making her the first African American to hold the position in the organization’s 100-year history.

In the span of her professional career, which began in 1959, Nichols has worked tirelessly through three deadly scourges: Polio, SARS, and HIV/AIDS. Now COVID-19.  

“The enormity of this virus is devastating,” Nichols said.

Everyday measures to protect yourself from the virus include frequent hand hygiene, physical distancing when in public, wearing a cloth face mask, and most importantly, stay home. While many self-quarantine and socially isolate to avoid even a chance encounter with someone or something carrying the coronavirus, health care professionals, like nurses, head to the frontlines.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand throughout the Badger State, the negative health consequences experienced by vulnerable populations continues to be magnified, Nichols said. 

More reason the Wisconsin Nurses Respond Now Priority Training Project is desperately needed. It is designed to “contribute positively” towards addressing social determinants, improving potential health outcomes and ensuring more equitable care is provided to all Wisconsinites. 

“We started the program in Milwaukee because that’s where the issues are the greatest and the disparities among poor populations include Blacks, Latinx, the elderly and Native Americans,” Nichols said.

In Milwaukee County, communities of color are at increased risk for experiencing serious illness and death if they become infected with coronavirus, as compared to their white counterparts. Currently, African Americans represent 73% of Milwaukee County’s COVID related deaths. Current reports show that if infected with coronavirus, 27% of African Americans, 20% of Hispanic/Latinx, and 34% of American Indian/Alaska Natives are more likely to experience serious illness.

Older Wisconsin adults experience greater risk due to complex health needs often requiring assistance from care givers whether living at home or residing in nursing homes, senior housing or assisted living settings. 

To better address the health care needs of these populations, this project is focused on providing relevant, high-quality education for nurses about the disparities, social determinants of health, and equity concerns.

“Because of the emergent and prolonged effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses must be able to receive this information easily and in a way that allows for rapid translation of new knowledge back into practice quickly. We’re excited to be able to contribute our expertise and collaborate with WCN on this priority training project” said Kelly Kruse Nelles, National RNCM Co-Director and Lead Faculty.

Research also revealed that a majority of Wisconsin nurses are white. While COVID-19 has been termed a great equalizer, it is increasingly demonstrable that social inequalities in health are profoundly, and unevenly, impacting COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. Many social determinants of health — including poverty, physical environment, and race or ethnicity — can have a considerable effect on COVID-19 outcomes.

“They need to be sensitized to the social and cultural element of this virus,” Nichols said. “COVID is more than just the clinical piece, such as giving the vaccine and knowing the symptoms. You have to understand the environment people live in, the financial situations that make health care not accessible, and so on. The course goes into those elements.”

The program’s efforts were noticed and last year, the workforce development education initiative received an Innovation Award from the Future of Nursing Campaign for Action at the Center for Championing Nursing in America, an initiative of the AARP Foundation, AARP, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Initial funding provided by Bader Philanthropies, allowed us to accomplish Phase 1 of the project which was to pilot the training with nurses in Milwaukee as this was the State’s highest need area” Nichols said. “Through this Innovation Award, WCN will be able to move into Phase 2 of this 3 Phase training which includes a limited number of tuition scholarships for nurses throughout the state.”

For more information, please contact, Kelly Kruse Nelles at (608) 437-6035 or email Kelly.kruse@nationalrncm.com. Visit the Wisconsin Center for Nursing website at https://wicenterfornursing.org/ to download the WNRN Fact Sheet or register online for upcoming trainings.