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Adapting Our Support for Health Workers in Response to COVID-19

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By early March it was becoming clear that the year ahead would look different from what we had been planning for at the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation. While pandemic preparedness and resiliency is an area of focus for us along with our Global Public Health colleagues, we didn’t know we’d all be facing a global pandemic outbreak just three months after we launched the Center last September at the United Nations Global Assembly. But we knew that supporting frontline health workers as the backbone of strong community health systems would be essential to any effective response to COVID-19.

The Center, focused on guiding a $250 million, 10-year commitment to build a thriving health workforce and the more immediate $50 million commitment to support frontline health workers battling COVID-19, both from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation and the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies, began working closely with partners to understand their immediate, near and long-term needs. Accordingly, with agile decision-making and execution we were able to pivot 20% of already committed programming to COVID-19 response as well as co-create new initiatives with existing and new partners to meet this crisis in innovative ways.

After listening to our partners, we adopted a three-pronged strategy for our response.

The first component ensures that emergency relief prioritizes the safety of health workers during COVID-19 care delivery, including PPE donations, training, technology, and other immediate support for communities.

  • This includes a commitment of $3 million to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to support the emergency response across the EMEA region, with $2 million allocated to Italy, Spain, France and the UK.
  • As COVID-19 limited the ability for people to get health care in person, digital platforms such as the CommCare open source platform from Dimagi have become invaluable in keeping health workers connected to each other, with health systems and with their communities.
  • The lack of standard procedures and guidelines for nurses at the community level on dealing with COVID-19 led to a project with the World Continuing Education Alliance that is being pushed out to 45,000 nurses in Kenya and potentially to 650,000 nurses worldwide.
  • In Asia, we are working with reach52 to strengthen the technical knowledge of 1,500 rural health workers responding to COVID-19 and connect hundreds of thousands of people in low-resource settings to essential COVID-19 information using chatbot technology and automated symptom checker.
  • In the US, we supported the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL) with an educational grant to develop “Leading Through Crisis: A Resource Compendium for Nurse Leaders,” a free compendium of brief online modules to equip nurse leaders with practical tips and effective strategies for addressing challenges unique to a crisis. The materials have been sent to AONL’s 43,000 individual members as well as the 5,000 institutional members of the American Hospital Association.

The second seeks to provide mental health and psychosocial support for health workers on the forefront of fighting this pandemic who are struggling with even greater pressures on their resilience and well-being.

  • For example, our partnership with Thrive Global and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is providing health workers much needed resources to protect their health as they endure burnout, exhaustion and other challenges as first responders during this crisis.
  • We are collaborating with the Philippines Mental Health Association to offer psychosocial support and disseminate information to the country’s COVID-19 frontline health workers.
  • In the UK, we provided urgent support that enabled Mental Health UK to stabilize its Helpline and Advice Center which saw a huge spike in demand in the wake of the pandemic.

Finally, we are working with governments and ministries of health around the world on national action plans for preparedness and health systems strengthening.

  • For example, we have partnered with DG Murray Trust on the Masked Heroes Campaign to provide PPE, psychosocial support, information and communication to thousands of community health workers in collaboration with non-governmental organizations across South Africa.
  • We have also made a financial contribution to the SOLIDARITY Fund of South Africa to support strengthening the health system response and protecting frontline health workers nationally.
  • In addition, in the US we are supporting initiatives that support Black, Latino and Native American communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. This includes enabling CareMessage to provide community-based healthcare providers in underserved areas free access to their COVID-19 messaging platform allowing them to send critical information to over 3 million patients in urban and rural areas via text messages in both English and Spanish.
  • Through Penn Medicine’s Center for Community Health Workers, we are helping hundreds of Community Health Workers provide virtual support to racial and ethnic minority communities in Philadelphia and other cities.

To advance these initiatives, we pursued flexibility across our portfolio to support partners adapting and reinventing their capabilities amidst challenging situations on the ground, including lockdowns and restrictions on community-based programming in many countries. At the same time, the crisis encouraged us to reimagine how the Center can work with existing and new partners to support innovative and scalable interventions to ensure that those on the front lines of care are trained, supported and connected during and beyond this pandemic.

To that end, we are using the learnings from COVID-19 to mobilize momentum and urgency around achieving the Center’s goal—to build a thriving frontline health workforce to achieve health for all. Specifically, the Center is committed to support one million nurses, midwives and community health workers and improve the quality of care for 100 million people by 2030.

While much has been upended during this time, our commitment to help build resilient community-based health systems with thriving frontline health workers at the heart of it has never been stronger. COVID-19—like most disasters tend to do—has yet again brought to light the glaring inequities in our health systems that put our most vulnerable communities most at risk. Approaching our response to COVID-19 within the larger context of driving systemic change in our community health systems by focusing on the health workforce allows us to meet the needs of the moment while maintaining progress on critical objectives for the long-term, and we will never stop.