Closing The Gap

How women could be uniquely impacted by the coronavirus

An Emergency Department Nurse during a demonstration of the Coronavirus pod and COVID-19 virus testing procedures set-up beside the Emergency Department of Antrim Area Hospital, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. PA Photo.
Michael Cooper | Getty Images

As the coronavirus continues to spread globally, some health-care professionals and experts have growing concerns about how the virus could disproportionately impact women.

Right now, women in the U.S. hold 76% of health-care jobs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In nursing, where workers are on the front lines of patient interactions, women make up more than 85% of the workforce.

"It's a little scary," says one registered nurse who works in the Washington, D.C. area, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy and employment. In the past, she's worked with patients who've had the flu, tuberculosis and other communicable diseases, but the coronavirus is different, she tells CNBC Make It. In addition to the virus having no vaccine yet, the rush of people being infected has led to some health-care workers being fearful that they may contract it as well, she says. 

"I've had to ask myself, 'What if I got exposed to the virus unknowingly and now I have to go back to family members who are in the age bracket of 60 and above, or even younger family members with a weak immune system?'"

Though her hospital won't reveal the exact number of patients infected, the 25-year-old nurse says she's aware that they've had to place several patients who tested positive for the virus in quarantine. 

Kübra Yilmaz and Canan Emcan, nurses of the infection ward of the university hospital, in protective clothing and behind a breathing mask, look at two smear tubes and the corresponding virology certificate. In Essen, the city and university hospital feel well prepared for patients infected with the novel coronavirus.
Bernd Thissen | Getty Images

Women make up the majority of health-care workers worldwide

Though early studies from China show that men are more likely to die from COVID-19 than women, some experts wonder if women are at greater risk of catching it because of their role in health care. 

Roughly 70% of the global health-care workforce is made up of women, according to an analysis of 104 countries conducted by the World Health Organization. In the Hubei province of China, where the virus originated, more than 90% of health-care workers are women. 

Nancy Nielsen, former president of the American Medical Association, says it's important to understand that "health-care workers are at risk, and they need to be protected with protective gear to prevent infection." Already, she says, "we have seen tragic deaths among health-care professionals, both doctors and nurses, abroad."

In China, at least 3,300 health-care workers have gotten the virus and 13 have died, according to Chinese health authorities. 

Nielsen says these figures should be a wake-up call to ensure that all U.S. health-care workers at least have N95 respirator masks that they can use when dealing with patients who may have the virus. So far, public fears of contracting coronavirus have led multiple retailers and suppliers to run out of the masks due to the general public purchasing them. Nielsen says this has created a shortage in the number of masks health-care workers have access to.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that people don't hoard the N95 masks and keep them from the people who are at the greatest risk, which are health-care workers," she says.

Vice President Mike Pence has asked construction companies, which use the same type of masks, to donate some of their supplies to local hospitals. 

Westend61 | Westend61 | Getty Images

Women are primary caretakers

In addition to women making up the majority of health-care workers in the U.S. and globally, women are overwhelmingly the primary caretakers in their families. This means that many women in health care are balancing a demanding work life and home life, Nielsen says.

Today, more than 75% of caregivers are women, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance. Though men also provide assistance, data shows that women spend as much as 50% more time caring for a family member than men.

"These women [in health-care professions] also have responsibility to take care of parents, who are older, and school-aged children," says Nielsen, who currently serves as senior associate dean for health policy at the University at Buffalo. "So their lives are enormously impacted by worrying about elderly relatives and by school closures." 

So far, more than 69,000 schools across the U.S. have been closed or are scheduled to close due to the coronavirus, according to Education Week, which published a state-by-state map tracking school closures across the country. 

In Washington, one of the states that has been hit the hardest by the coronavirus, Governor Jay Inslee asked district superintendents to provide free childcare for health-care workers and first responders who need to be at work. At UW Medicine, a hospital in Seattle, clinicians have received emails from the human resources department about plans to "activate additional resources." This includes working with local university programs to match accredited students with an "interest in child development" to families in need, according to emails reviewed by CNBC. So far, there is no word on when these plans will go into effect. 

"The one good thing is that people who go into health care, whether they're nurses or physicians, they do it because they want to help people," says Nielsen. "So, while people normally run away from tragedy, these are the folks that run toward it, and we just need to support them and keep them safe."

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Here's what it's really like to be a registered nurse
Here's what it's really like to be a registered nurse