There have been widespread reports about how the pandemic is adversely affecting minority populations. The extent of this disparity is particularly clear in New Orleans, one of the hotspots for COVID-19.

“We are seeing that 70% of the deaths [from the novel coronavirus] are in African American individuals. Coincidentally, this population in Louisiana has the highest rates of kidney disease, diabetes, and hypertension,” explained Sophia Thomas, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Thomas, who works as a family and nurse practitioner in New Orleans, spoke as part of an expert panel assembled to answer reporters’ questions about the pandemic on April 9.

Even before the pandemic exploded, healthcare-related numbers from the New Orleans region revealed an area that was in a perpetual crisis, Thomas stressed. “[Louisiana] is one of the most unhealthy states. This crisis right now has really highlighted the true problem with the health disparities here ... and it is quite unfortunate,” Thomas lamented. “Our numbers are still on the rise as far as deaths and new infections.” However, the demand for care has not yet outstripped hospital capacity, Thomas reported.

“We still have room ... in the hospitals here. There are still some ICU [intensive care unit] beds [available],” she noted. This is despite some modeling that predicted hospitals in New Orleans would run out beds some time ago. “The social distancing is really working here,” Thomas said.

Nonetheless, she shared that there are still some pockets of population that do not seem to realize how important it is to adhere to the social distancing recommendations. Thomas noted that nurse practitioners in Louisiana, as well as other states, have become a critical resource for surge staffing during this crisis. Restrictions on their scope of practice have been loosened to help hospitals and emergency departments fill critical needs.

“Prior to this crisis, 22 states plus the District of Columbia and the VA [Veterans Administration] health system had what we call ‘full practice authority’ [for nurse practitioners], which means nurse practitioners can practice to the full extent of their education and training without regulatory restrictions,” she explained.

Thomas noted that this in contrast to other states that required nurse practitioners to enter into collaborative practice agreements with physicians. However, since the pandemic began, the governors in several states have taken action to remove the requirement for collaborative practice agreements, thereby allowing nurse practitioners to pitch in and help to the full extent of their training and education.

“[New York] Gov. Andrew Cuomo was the first governor to do that. Since [early April], when he removed that requirement, we’ve had 4,000 nurse practitioners volunteer in the New York area to help with this crisis and on the front lines,” Thomas shared. “We’ve got a workforce there that wants to work and wants to help. Once these regulatory red tape problems are removed, we really step up.”