President Joe Biden highlighted the value of the nursing perspective when he appointed Jane Hopkins, RN, to his COVID-19 Advisory Board last fall, a decision that marked a victory for nurses who had been advocating for representation of their profession on the board.
The original board, which was announced on November 9, did not include an RN, but nurses expressed their dismay on social media and started petitions highlighting the fact that nurses are the largest group of healthcare professionals. Hopkins, who specializes in mental health, and Jill Jim, DrPH, MHA, a Navajo Nation health leader, were among the members who were added to the board in late November.
Hopkins has been meeting virtually with the group — which includes physicians and former and current government officials — to discuss a wide range of topics, including staffing in hospitals, personal protective equipment (PPE), and testing.
She brings to the COVID-19 advisory board her experience as a bedside nurse, an advocate for workers, an immigrant, a Black woman, and a leader in Washington state’s response to the pandemic.
“I’ve been able to share with the board how tired nurses are and how staffing is a significant problem,” said Hopkins, who also is the executive director of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, a local union representing nearly 32,000 healthcare workers in Washington state and western Montana. “I’ve also talked about the importance of looking after nurses’ mental health. Watching a patient die from COVID-19 can be traumatic, and there are nurses who are suffering from PTSD.”
COVID-19 Advisory Board appointment follows other advocacy roles
Hopkins’ role as a leader during the pandemic emerged when she started advocating for union members who needed paid leave to quarantine or recover from COVID-19, better access to PPE, and information translated into different languages. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was asked to join Washington’s COVID-19 task force, which has advised Gov. Jay Inslee on the development of the state’s response to the pandemic. She is also a member of a Washington State Safe Start advisory group, where she been worked with members to increase COVID-19 testing efforts and prepare for vaccine distribution.
“I’m excited that Jane is on Biden’s board because she fights to make sure we can do our jobs safely and not get burned out,” said Zeynab Jama, RN, who works in the burn ICU and pediatric ICU at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
During the pandemic, Hopkins has considered the needs of all workers such as bilingual cleaning staff who needed instructions written in their own languages for disinfecting COVID-19 patient rooms, Jama said.
Hopkins’ International Origins
One of the perspectives Hopkins brings to Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board is her experience living as an immigrant. “I am thinking about the fact that immigrant healthcare workers are more likely to have elderly parents living with them, which heightens their concerns about bringing COVID-19 home,” she said.
Hopkins was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa and moved to the United Kingdom when she was 12. “My parents wanted a better life,” said Hopkins. “But after my father finished his PhD, we couldn’t move back to Sierra Leone because the country was in the midst of a civil war.”
Her parents moved to the U.S. when she was 15, but she stayed in the UK to finish her education.
She initially considered medical school, but Hopkins was discouraged by the many years of training required. Instead, she decided to pursue nursing and has been grateful for this decision ever since. “Nurses are the eyes and ears of doctors because they spend more time with patients, and I love that role,” she said. “We help patients understand what is going on and can advocate for them.”
In 2000, Hopkins moved with her husband and three children to Seattle, where she landed a job at Harborview Medical Center, the state’s only level 1 trauma center.
As a specialist in mental health, she worked with patients who were suffering from conditions such as schizophrenia or depression and others who did not have mental health issues yet still needed emotional support. “I saw how holding someone’s hand in the hospital was so essential to healing,” she said.
Hopkins also appreciated Harborview’s commitment to helping anyone who walked through the door. “I loved the fact that it didn’t matter if patients had insurance or were homeless,” she said. “We treated everyone the same.”
Her interest in leadership surfaced when she noticed a disturbing trend that was compromising patient safety. When no beds were available for new patients in the emergency department, the care team improvised by temporarily placing patients on stretchers in the hallway. Hopkins felt that this was not safe for people who were at risk of a heart attack. These patients needed someone to watch their monitors continuously, but nurses were usually already juggling multiple patients. Hopkins rallied nurses together to meet with hospital administrators to propose a change in the policy, and the administrators agreed to dedicate a nurse or trained technician to continuously monitor patients at risk of a heart attack who were in the hallway.
“That experience got me hooked on advocacy,” she said. “I realized that if workers know the issues, unite, and talk to management, then they can make changes.”
In 2008, Hopkins started working for SEIU because she was eager to advocate for nurses, patients, and the community at a higher level.
Now she’s leveraging that experience to advise and, so far, she’s been encouraged by the level of expertise and cooperation among COVID-19 advisory board members, who include leaders such as former FDA Commissioner David Kessler and former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
“There are many smart people with so much experience working at a high federal level, and I’m humbled to be part of the team,” she said. “But I’m not shy about sharing my perspective, and we are learning so much as we get outside of our bubbles and listen to one another.”