Shanen Lauby hasn’t been inside her home for over five weeks. The emergency room nurse in Eastvale, California, sleeps in a trailer parked in front of her house to keep from potentially spreading coronavirus to her husband and four children.
“It’s hard, my kids are little. That’s the one thing they say over and over: ‘I just want to hug you, I just want to kiss you,’” said the 44-year-old Kaiser hospital nurse through tears. “It’s heartbreaking because you don’t know if they completely understand, if they feel abandoned.”
As cases rapidly mounted in March, Lauby knew she couldn’t stay at home. She and her colleagues were regularly exposed to potential and confirmed COVID-19 cases, and her oldest son has asthma and is at high risk for severe coronavirus symptoms.
In the past few weeks, she’s gone from working part-time to pulling 80-hour weeks at the hospital while her husband, a lawyer, cares for their kids. On her one day off per week, she dons a mask and stays over six feet away from all of them.
Lauby is one of millions of health care workers across the country, many of whom now spend their days at work risking exposure to coronavirus and must grapple with how to keep from spreading it to their families when they come home.
The U.S. leads the world in confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases and deaths caused by it. As of Tuesday, more than 1.1 million cases had been reported in the nation, with over 68,000 dead. As of mid-April, more than 9,000 health care workers had contracted COVID-19, and at least 27 had died from the disease.
As millions of Americans stay home to stem the pandemic’s spread, health care workers are considered “essential” and continue to work on the front lines against the virus. Many of them have called out a lack of protective gear, including nurses who demonstrated nationwide on Friday.
The state of California, New York City and other jurisdictions have subsidized hotel rooms for health workers so that they can safely isolate themselves from their families. So far, more than 2,300 health workers in New York and 5,800 in California have used the hotels. But Lauby has been hesitant — at least from the trailer she can still wave goodnight to her kids each night.
“When you go home to the trailer or to the hotel, you’re alone,” Lauby said. “You don’t know when it’s gonna end. And you can’t sustain living away from your little kids forever, so when is the time to go back?”
For health workers across most of the country, staying in a hotel is not an option. Bradley Tackett, a 32-year-old emergency medical technician in West Virginia, and his wife, a registered nurse, had to make the tough call more than five weeks ago to drop off their children at her parents’ house. Now he only sees them on FaceTime or when he drives over to wave at them through the window.
“It’s like someone taking your whole world away from you in a manner of minutes,” Tackett said. Even he and his wife stay apart when they’re home, each sequestered to a different part of the house.
“We can’t be there and they don’t understand,” Tackett said of his young kids. “They’re crying, ‘I want to come home.’ My little girl calls me — she’s four — she says, ‘Come to mamaw’s and wear a mask so I can give you a hug’… Very depressing times.”
Stay home. We’re making a sacrifice. I haven’t seen my kids in almost a month. It hurts. I’d do anything to bring them home. Brad Tackett, an EMT in West Virginia
For health workers staying in government-subsidized hotels, the burden of how to protect their family is lessened — but being away from them is still hard.
Todd Schultz, the 39-year-old head nurse of the recovery room at Bellevue hospital in New York City, has lived in a hotel room paid for by the city for over a month. His wife juggles her full-time work as the director of a children’s ministry program with caring for their three young children.
“I miss them very much,” Schultz said. But he added that having a hotel room to stay in has been “great,” because it means he can reduce possible exposure to his wife and oldest son, who both have asthma.
Schultz has a video call with his kids every night. On Saturdays, when he goes home to see them, he strips off his clothes, takes a shower and wears a mask the whole time. One of the best parts of having a hotel room for him has been not bringing home his “anxiety” and “sadness.”
“Some stuff has been really tough to process and I wouldn’t want to process it around my family,” he said.
“You know you’re serving the city, but at the end of the day, you’re a human being and it’s just rough,” added Schultz, who is working voluntary overtime shifts.
Both Schultz and Lauby stressed how hard it is for their partners, who are shouldering the full burden of caring for their kids.
“Sometimes I feel like I have it easy being here,” Schultz said of his hotel room. “Everybody talks about the health workers, nobody talks about the caretakers at home.”
Tackett had a message for anyone looking to support health workers during this pandemic.
“Stay home,” Tackett said, noting he’s seen “firsthand” what the virus does to those infected. “We’re making a sacrifice. I haven’t seen my kids in almost a month. It hurts. I’d do anything to bring them home. Keep social distancing.”