PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) – Advocating for diverse health needs while supporting current and future nurses is the goal of the Black Nurses Association of Central Illinois since it was chartered in 2014.

This week, leaders with the organization shared with WMBD-TV the significance of diversity in nursing, how the pandemic has impacted nurses and nursing schools, and the importance of COVID-19 vaccines.

Diversity in nursing

Vergetta Harris has spent 30 years in healthcare, and 20 of those as a registered nurse. Her career was inspired by her past.

“I had an illness when I was younger, and I have always wanted to help people, [and] help people feel better,” said Harris, Black Nurses Association of Central Illinois treasurer and registered nurse.

Harris is now doing so while adding diversity to the healthcare field and providing a comforting voice for patients in black and brown communities.

“I can help them understand what they didn’t understand. I can at least make them feel comfortable enough to talk to me and say, ‘I didn’t get that,'” Harris said.

A challenge she is still facing, however, is getting more black nurses into the workforce.

“So far as the racial diversity, I’ve seen a lot of struggles with that,” Harris said.

The president of the Black Nurses Association of Central Illinois and professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, Dr. Elaine hardy, said supporting a student to pursue careers like nursing begins in early childhood.

“I don’t know that a lot of black and brown children know that they can be nurses, and what a nurse does, and what it can lead to,” Hardy said. “Letting students know early on that this is something they can aspire to be, and [that] they can do it [is important.]

She said support should continue throughout a student’s academic journey.

“If you ask a lot of students [if they have] already applied for schools, a lot of them haven’t, and they’re seniors. A lot of them say, ‘I’m going to be a nurse,’ but a lot of them haven’t taken enough science or math courses,” Hardy said.

Harris said healthcare systems must also provide a workplace where people of all backgrounds can thrive.

“A welcoming and engaging attitude from the institution so when they have successfully passed, they feel like they belong,” Harris said.

COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines

Working in healthcare in the midst of a global pandemic, Harris said, has been challenging.

“The stress of it all is coming in the form of not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

During the last two years, Harris said she has seen lots of ill individuals and has answered a lot of questions, including from family members who turned to her information.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls about what’s going on, and what should they do and how to handle it,” Harris said.

She added that the pandemic has been even more taxing as healthcare systems face staff shortages and bed capacity slips.

“It’s not just an empty bed. It’s do we have the staff to care for those patients if they were in those beds,” Harris said.

Dr. Hardy said the COVID-19 pandemic has also left its mark on the classroom.

“So many students are concerned about what they’re going to be entering, what it’s going to look like, and so many are concerned about burnout and they haven’t even become nurses yet,” Hardy said.

As the Omicron surge increases COVID-19 cases and strains healthcare systems, both Hardy and Harris are encouraging the community to get vaccinated. Harris said she has heard some say “there hasn’t been enough research.”

“And they’re not even trying to see what research is out there. They’re just basing it off of what they’ve heard,” Harris said.

Hardy said it’s also important that people don’t forget preventative care measures for other health needs.

“I think it’s our responsibility to be a part of the healthcare system, to do preventative care, get your screenings. Even with COVID, get your vaccines, get your boosters,” Hardy said.