California Nurse Talks Uncertainties, Fears Working With Potential COVID-19 Patients

March 23, 2020 Updated: March 23, 2020
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Hardly anything is straightforward in dealing with COVID-19 at the hospital, a nurse in Southern California told The Epoch Times.

“It’s kind of hard to navigate the situation,” she said. “Everything changes every single day. I’ll come into work and there will be a new packet for me to read about the new regulations that changed overnight, literally.”

Nurses who are dealing with potential COVID-19 patients are assigned only to those patients, said the nurse, who preferred not to be named. Typically, she cares for four patients at a time in an acute-care ward, but recently has been assigned to one-to-one care for potential COVID-19 patients.

“So, they’re really trying to limit the amount of people who are exposed even when they are rule-out cases,” she said.

“We are one-to-one because we are expected to assume all the care for that patient, which includes drawing blood from that patient, doing respiratory treatment, taking their vitals and taking them to the bathroom—their every little need—as opposed to the other patients on the floor, even if they are on special contact precautions for things like pneumonia, chicken pox or scabies or something like that.”

In addition to ever-changing protocols, other challenges for her include potential equipment shortages, helping patients cope with their uncertainties, the possibility of having to do work she doesn’t feel prepared for if the situation escalates, and watching some of her colleagues struggle with separation from their families.

Changing Regulations

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines have recently changed, allowing nurses to wear surgical masks rather than Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR), the nurse said.

“At first, we had to wear those [PAPR], and now they’ve changed it to the droplet masks, so like the surgical masks you see people wearing on the street,” she said. “The hospitals don’t provide the full-on goggles and hazmat-looking suits,” she said. “We have to wear a gown, gloves, and a mask.”

Though the federal and state governments have promised more masks and ventilators are on the way to hospitals, the thought of having to work without a protective mask is nerve-wracking, she said.

“I can’t effectively do my job if I can’t protect myself from the same elements that I’m trying to battle.”

When it comes to the shortage of ventilators, some patient’s lives will be at stake if the problem is not solved, she said. Plans are in the works nationwide to increase production of critical supplies, including masks, and disseminate them among the hospitals in need.

“Right now, I can’t say if there will ever be enough to be prepared for something like, say, Italy. What I can tell you is, at least right now, it doesn’t seem like specifically where I work that we’re overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. It’s not to that point,” she said.

She’s not sure if there’s a threshold number of COVID-19 patients for which the hospital staff feel prepared. “If this turns into a full-on outbreak like it is in Italy, if they really need that many ventilators, then right now I don’t think we’ll have enough.”

Training and Preparedness

Not all nurses are trained on ventilators, mechanical breathing devices that are crucial to caring for severely infected patients who suffer from lung failure.

“I feel prepared to an extent,” she said. “I don’t know how to take care of someone who is intubated and on a ventilator. That’s outside of my scope because I wasn’t trained in an intensive care unit.

“If I’m forced to take care of patients like that because that’s just the reality of the situation, then I will absolutely do it with an open heart and try to be courageous, but I will not be prepared. With things like that, and in certain situations I’m not trained to handle, of course, I’m going to feel unprepared.”

Questions From Patients

While she hasn’t conducted the swab COVID-19 tests herself, she has interacted with patients as they’ve waited for their test results. Though most tests have come back negative, the hospital is bracing for an onslaught of positive cases.

Because there is no ready cure for the disease, patients waiting for their test results tend to ask a lot of “what if” questions, the nurse said. All she can do is be honest with them.

“Right now, it’s kind of hard to give people straight-forward answers when they ask questions about what their care would look like,” she said. “I just focus on being very transparent with my patients on this sensitive matter. I have to tell them I don’t know and that we just have to follow what the health department says.”

Nurses Self-Isolating

Nurses are at a higher risk than people in many other professions for experiencing extreme stress—under normal conditions. A study published Feb. 3 showed nurses at a higher risk than the general population for suicide.

A little over a month after that study was published, we’re seeing many additional stresses on nurse. They’re working on the front-lines of the pandemic and when they leave work, they’re immersed in the general stress pervading society right now.

“You come home to family who are also stressed about what’s going on in the world, and right now it’s hard to find relief from this anxiety that’s kind of floating all around you,” the nurse said. “So, you come home to more stress with everyone worried about what’s going on.”

Some nurses have resorted to isolating themselves in hotels and RVs rather than run the risk of infecting their families as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, she said.

“They’re pretty worried, even to the point where some of them have decided to stay in hotels separate from their families and quarantine themselves away from their families just in case they become exposed to something at work,” she said.

Besides paying for hotel rooms out of their own pockets and living in RVs, others have tried to keep their distance from family members in their homes with some type of separate living space, she said.

“Some doctors are doing this too. It’s not just the nurses. It’s kind of everyone,” she said.

“A lot of my coworkers have talked about how they’ve separated themselves from their young kids, especially the ones who have babies at home. Whatever they can do to keep their families safe, they’re willing to do it,” she said.

However, most nurses haven’t taken such extreme measures in their living arrangements, she said.

“Aside from being a nurse and on the front lines,” she said, “it just makes me nervous to see how people are reacting to the lockdown and how some people are still not really not taking it seriously.”