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COVID-19 is causing mass trauma among nurses across the world with potentially devastating consequences in both the short and long-term for individual nurses and healthcare systems they work in, according to evidence from the International Council of Nurses (ICN).

The survey, of 130-plus National Nurse Associations (NNA), revealed high levels of infections in the nursing workforce continuing, overstretched staff experiencing increased psychological distress in the face of ever-increasing workloads, and continued abuse and protests by anti-vaccinators.

Additionally, the number of nurses who have died from COVID-19 now exceeds 2,200, the ICN said.

The findings, coupled with studies by NNAs and other sources, indicated the effect COVID has had on nurses is a unique and complex form of trauma.

Consequently, the pandemic risks damaging the nursing profession for generations to come unless governments address the COVID-19 effect, which the survey suggests could trigger an exodus from the profession.

With the world already short of six million nurses, and with another four million due to reach retirement age in the next ten years, the ICN suggests an exodus from the profession is a situation the world can ill afford, given the fragility of healthcare systems across the globe.

“We are witnessing a unique and complex occupational trauma that is affecting the global nursing workforce. Nurses are dealing with relentless, unprecedented demands from their patients, resulting in physical exhaustion. But they are also facing enormous mental health pressures leading to serious psychological distress,” ICN CEO Howard Catton said.

“Around the world, looking after COVID-19 patients involves dealing with an increased number of deaths, having to stand in for relatives who are not able to be with their loved ones, even as they are dying, being concerned over the lack of personal protective equipment, facing abuse from members of their communities and pandemic deniers, and fearing transmitting the virus to their loved ones at home.”

ICN’s data showed that since the first wave of the pandemic, the proportion of nurses reporting mental health distress has risen from 60% to 80% in many countries. ICN has also gathered together studies from every region of the world, which confirm rising trauma, anxiety and burnout in the nursing profession.

In Australia, the data revealed 61% of healthcare workers had reported burnout and 28% reported depression.

In the US, the American Nurses Association reported 51% of nurses felt ‘overwhelmed’. Other reports from the US showed 93% of healthcare workers were experiencing stress, while 76% reported exhaustion and burnout, and nurse-to-patient ratio had increased three-fold.

“This unique mass trauma is having an immediate and profound effect, but it is also highly likely to have a significant long-term impact as it contributes to a wave of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, the scale of which we cannot yet determine,” Mr Catton added.

“With the emergence of new, highly infectious variants of the virus, and increasing evidence of the effects of long COVID, ICN urges governments not to underestimate the scale of this crisis.

“COVID-19 has exposed the fault lines in our healthcare systems, but if nations do not take immediate action to shore them up unbreachable chasms will be created with potentially devastating effects.”