By DAVE SCHWAB | Uptown News
Covid-19 is changing the way we live and work, including healthcare workers like nurses, who continue to engage patients individually in hospitals and out in the field.
Reporter Dave Schwab caught up with four of them for a Q&A discussing how the battle is going against the pandemic on the healthcare front lines.
The impact is far-ranging for nurses, from little or no impact to a great deal – and suddenly.
DS: How is working during the pandemic different than before?
“There are so many differences in the day-to-day, but the glaring ones are the availability of supplies/PPE, and the level of anxiety and fear that comes with the job,” said Tiffani Zalinski, a critical care nurse in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit at UCSD Jacobs Medical Center in La Jolla. “When Covid-19 broke out (March 14), I realized there was no PPE available on my unit, when our unit was previously stocked full of PPE, including N-95 masks, gowns, gloves, goggles, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizers. On March 14 when I came to work, all the PPE had been confiscated by the administration and locked away. We now had to obtain permission to get these supplies.”
Added Zalinski, “We go to work every day wondering things like, ‘How many people here are asymptomatic carriers that haven’t been tested? Am I one of them? Are my coworkers infected? Are we going to get sick? Are our families going to get sick?’”
“For me personally, not that much is different as I have been doing telephone triage for a while now,” said Mimi Kramer, RN, a triage nurse for Advantage Health Systems, Hospice Division, in San Diego, which handles patients countywide. “What is different is when I get a call about a patient who is running a fever or having difficulty breathing, I immediately think they may have Covid-19 and I need to assess what the ramifications of that would be.”
“Well it is a bit scary when you hear news of healthcare workers falling ill and dying from this virus,” said Angelito Tan, an RN in San Diego with the California Nurses Association. “We have had TB, HIV, Hepatitis, and MRSA (in hospitals), and a lot of healthcare workers have contracted such diseases during their careers. No one seems to question the hazardous conditions we as healthcare workers face every day, simply because it does not cause death in a matter of weeks. Now with coronavirus, everyone is now talking about how hazardous our jobs are.”
“The pandemic has brought a whole new animal into healthcare,” said Shannon Cotton, a registered nurse in the Covid-19 designated ICU at UCSD-Hillcrest. “Covid 19 does not discriminate: it can infect anyone even if they don’t have any medical history. Patients are coming in, requiring only a small amount of oxygen, then, suddenly, they can’t catch their breath and they need a breathing tube down their throat and a mechanical ventilator. Also not having visitors in the hospital is a kind of eerie. The nurse and doctor are the only connections a patient in the ICU with Covid-19 has to their family.”
DS: Are nurses overworked or overstressed dealing with this crisis?
“We are certainly overstressed,” said Zalinski. “But those with critical-care skills in San Diego may also feel somewhat overworked. We have been ordered to cross-train to ICU in the event of surges or critical needs. Our PACU staff has all undergone extensive “refresher” courses in ventilators and other aspects of Covid-19 patient care. The assumption is that if they need us, we will rise to the occasion.”
“This is a very stressful situation to be a healthcare worker during,” Kramer said. “If a nurse has to see a patient suspected or confirmed to have Covid-19 in person, that is very stressful.”
“Nurses have always been overworked, management always looks at trimming staff to boost profits,” said Tan. “Not saying that hospitals aren’t suffering financially during these times, but how often have we had a pandemic like this? Over the last decade hospitals across America have been making hundreds of millions if not billions in revenue yearly. We (nurses) do not benefit from that … Maybe if these hospitals would stop giving multi-million dollar bonuses to their chief executive officers and instead invest those dollars to hospital equipment/PPE, maybe we wouldn’t be facing a shortage. It seems management is able to plan and prepare to maintain profits, but cannot do the same to protect the safety of their staffs.”
“In the ICU, the stress level is palpable,” said Cotton. “Danger and disease is part of my job description, but with this new virus, and no cure, it can be very anxiety-provoking entering the room and knowing, ‘Hey, I could contract Covid-19.’ We know that over 60 nurses in the U.S. have died from Covid-19, and it’s probably more due to insufficient testing. But I would never change my job or not show up. I love my patients and my community.”
DS: How about a couple of pointers on what folks can do to help make nurse’s jobs a little less difficult during these trying times?
“Please stay home,” implored Zalinski. “Be our ally. Wash your hands. Maintain social distancing. We recognize that it is hard to feel isolated and without our normal outlets. But the more people who choose to ignore these warnings, the more stress and strain it puts on the healthcare system. If too many people get sick at once, more people will die. And what’s even scarier is that if more healthcare workers get sick, who will be there to take care of the laypeople?
“Wash your hands,” said Kramer.
“Be responsible, like wearing a mask, covering their faces/turning away when coughing, washing their hands frequently,” said Tan. “If they have any fever or any symptoms to get checked out, instead of hiding it and visiting loved ones in the hospital and exposing everybody. Patience. We are all in this together, we must protect the public – and ourselves – from this deadly virus.”
“The support from the community so far has been amazing – we have been getting donations of food, masks, cards from people saying ‘thank you,’” Cotton said.
— Dave Schwab can be reached at email@example.com.