While many Americans are staying in their homes during this global health pandemic, health care providers are working harder and longer shifts than ever.
Local nurses working in different settings from the hospital emergency room to a long-term care community say their jobs have changed and are more stressful.
“We’re working harder, longer, doing what we have to do to take care of and protect our patients and the public from this,” said hospital ER nurse Robin Guthrie, RN, CEN. “We’re staying on the front lines to protect everyone else.”
Guthrie lives in Halifax County and works at a hospital in a neighboring county.
Sallie Chafatelli, a travel nurse from Halifax County currently working on a medical floor for pulmonary and renal care in the Roanoke area, also offered her thoughts about being a nurse during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We don’t get to isolate ourselves. We are at the frontlines of the epidemic,” Chafatelli said. “I am not one to panic or overreact in the face of illness. We are conditioned as health care providers to face those obstacles with a calm, methodical approach. However, I won’t deny that there is a part of me that is very much concerned. I am not concerned for myself. What I worry about is who I will bring this virus back to.”
Chafetelli said she knows that traveling from the small town she calls home to a larger city to work increases her risk of exposure, and there has already been a confirmed case of the coronavirus in Roanoke.
As a mother to two children — a 10-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son — Chafatelli worries about coming into contact with the coronavirus and potentially bringing it home to her family.
Carrie Young, a nurse at Sentara Woodview in South Boston, also worries about bringing the virus home to her family. Young has four children, two under the age of 3.
“I’m concerned about the virus myself, but this (nursing) is what I have chosen to do, and I’m going to do it,” Young said. “When I get home, I take off my scrubs, I leave my shoes outside. I spray my shoes down with Lysol. I wash my clothes separately from my children’s clothes.”
Young added that the coronavirus pandemic has definitely heightened the stress level of health care workers’ jobs.
“I think it’s definitely stressful because we don’t know what we’re really dealing with, so I think there’s a lot of anxiety about that,” she said.
On Sunday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced in a press conference that there were 219 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Virginia. There have been no cases in Halifax County, but there has been one case in neighboring Mecklenburg County and another in the Danville-Pittsylvania area.
Guthrie has been a nurse for 35 years, and she said she has never seen anything like the coronavirus.
“I’ve seen bad flu seasons but nothing of this magnitude, nothing that spread this fast. This is a first for me, and I hope it’s the last,” Guthrie said.
Although Guthrie has not yet treated any patients diagnosed with the coronavirus, she said she has treated an increased number of patients with respiratory systems.
“We’re still in the flu season. Now you’re adding allergy season. People are coughing, and they’re feeling rough, and they’re afraid. They’re concerned that they may have COVID-19,” Guthrie said. “If they’re high risk, we’re doing the testing for COVID-19. The provider is the one making the decision.”
Along with seeing a higher number of patients in the ER, Guthrie said she is providing educational resources on COVID-19 to each patient, regardless of the patient’s diagnosis. Preparing to see each patient also takes the ER nurses longer than usual now because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re having to wear extra protective gear. It’s more time consuming,” Guthrie said. “I may be wearing a surgical cap, an N-95 medically-cleared mask, an isolation gown to keep droplets from getting on my clothes.”
Guthrie takes wearing the protective gear seriously while at the same time using her sense of humor to help quell her patients’ fears.
“We look like space cadets or aliens coming in to see our patients,” Guthrie said. “People are scared, they are worried. We explain to them that just because we’re dressed up like Darth Vader not to get alarmed. We’re doing that to protect ourselves, to protect others.”
Chafatelli shared her concerns about hospitals experiencing shortages of protective equipment because of people frantically buying N95 masks needed by health care providers when fears about the coronavirus began and people even coming into the hospital where she works and stealing supplies such as hand sanitizer.
“Today I watched as our floor gathered and locked away our masks, sanitizers, etc.,” Chafatelli said. “Hospitals are being forced to ration out protective equipment. We are not under the protection we should be. We are already at one of the highest risks for exposure and against our training, judgment and intuition, we are thrown into greater risk.”
Despite the risk involved, Chafatelli said she and all the other health care providers will “continue to show up and do our job.”
Meanwhile, Guthrie said the hospital where she works is preparing for the possibility of having to treat an influx of critically ill patients during the coronavirus pandemic by trying to keep the non-critical patients out of the emergency department to keep those beds freed up. Guthrie’s hope is that the hospital does not have an influx of patients with the coronavirus all at once.
“If everybody is getting sick all at once, I would be concerned that we would end up being overwhelmed and end up running out of what we need to provide the care that we need to provide,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie added that the public’s adherence to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines such as social distancing and frequent hand washing will be a key factor in the length and severity of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
“The public is going to be a big factor in how this goes,” Guthrie said. “This is all hands on deck, not just health care, not just the government. The public really needs to take an active role. We can get past it quicker if everyone does their part.”
As health care providers, Guthrie, Chafatelli and Young all say they are strictly limiting their social interactions to reduce the risk of coming into contact with the coronavirus.
Young said her days consist of traveling back and forth from home and work and not going anywhere else. While at work, Young is on high alert. No visitors are allowed inside Sentara Woodview, and Young said the staff use the same door to enter and exit the building. Young’s temperature is taken as soon as she walks in the door of Sentara Woodview to ensure that she does not have a fever. While at work, Young said she is vigilant about washing her hands, and the staff is constantly cleaning with Lysol and Clorox.
While Young is feeling the pressures of being a health care provider during the coronavirus pandemic, she said she is seeing the stress the isolation is having on the residents of Sentara Woodview, as well.
“A lot of them had visitors on a daily basis,” Young said. “I have one resident whose husband comes every single day and he’s with her the majority of the day. Now, he can’t be by her side. It’s affecting her. It’s really sad.”
Facing a new reality confined inside the walls of Sentara Woodview, the residents are using the phone more to talk with family members and even asked to be wheeled to the front doors of the building to talk with loved ones with a layer of glass separating them, Young said.
The world has changed for everyone in the global health pandemic, and nurses fear that things will get worse before they get better.
“Cases of COVID-19 are going to continue to rise,” Chafatelli said. “This is due to increased exposure as well as the increase of testing availability. There are undetected cases out there that we simply have not had the resources to detect.”
On a positive note, Chafatelli said she has seen more teamwork among health care providers during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are all treading in new territory and are facing this epidemic day-by-day,” Chafatelli said. “Communication and teamwork are at their best as we face this new dilemma. Multiple disciplines are working vigorously at making the best of our situation and creating the safest environments possible for both patients and staff.”