As coronavirus cases continue to surge across the United States, health care workers have needed to stay agile and quickly adjust to our alarming new reality.
In response to the growing medical equipment shortages, nurses and doctors have jerry-rigged their own personal protective equipment (PPE). Sports goggles have been repurposed as face shields, garbage bags have been worn as gowns — and medical workers continue to put their health at risk and do what they can to help their patients recover.
But the sacrifices don’t end once the shift ends. The pandemic has completely uprooted medical workers’ personal lives and redefined what’s normal. Here are just some of the radical and heroic acts they’re doing to fight the pandemic:
They’re moving away from family and into rentals.
Many medical workers have moved out of their homes due to concerns they could bring the virus home and infect loved ones.
Jane ― an emergency responder nurse in Philadelphia who wanted to stay anonymous due to concerns about her job ― told HuffPost she recently moved out of her parents’ house to avoid passing the virus to them. Airbnb recently dropped their prices for long-term stays, Jane said, but she still has to pay an extra $1,400 a month that she wasn’t planning to spend.
Patricia Bain, a respiratory therapist and director of cardiopulmonary services at a hospital in Las Vegas, said her daughter (who has asthma and Crohn’s disease and therefore is immunosuppressed) had to move out and into her dad’s house.
“I’m very concerned because I don’t want to bring anything home to family,” Bain said. “Thankfully, she’s safe, but I miss her terribly.”
Leaving and coming home is a chore.
Jane also said she avoids wearing clean scrubs to work because “people think you’re like a walking infection.” Of course, most people look at others as if they’re infected at this point, scrubs or no scrubs, but she said it’s been easier to change into her scrubs once she gets to the hospital to not worry people.
Bain feels similarly. “I don’t go to the store in scrubs. People give dirty looks or make comments,” she said.
Returning home is no easy task either. Britt ― a nurse treating COVID-19 patients in San Diego who also wished to stay anonymous ― said she has to strip down to her underwear outside her front door after each shift to avoid bringing home anything that could be contaminated.
Then she throws her clothes in the hamper, runs to the shower, washes her scrubs, disinfects her phone, keys, doorknobs and any other surfaces she touched. “Getting in and out of my house, to and from work, takes twice as long as it normally would,” she said.
Some are securing a will and power of attorney.
Maxine Dexter, a pulmonary and critical care physician in Portland, Oregon, has been treating COVID-19 patients. After reading that a handful of young, healthy doctors contracted COVID-19 and died, she — along with several of her colleagues — decided to secure their will and power of attorney in case they met a similar fate.
“We talked with our kids about who they will live with if we don’t survive this. I refuse to not be ready,” Dexter told HuffPost.
There’s little testing for medical workers.
Ideally, testing would be much more widespread than it is now, and there’d be enough test kits to monitor the health of those working with COVID-19 patients. But health care workers on the frontline are being screened and tested only if they develop symptoms, such as a fever.
“We should all have our temperatures taken at the beginning and end of shifts and be sent home if [over] 100.5. We should also be tested at least weekly to make sure we aren’t vectors, spreading this infection,” Dexter said.
Many are extremely isolated.
Though much of the country is sheltering in place, it’s even stricter for health care workers. Britt said outside of work she hasn’t been able to see anyone — not her family, boyfriend and especially not her friends, most of whom are also nurses and cannot risk contracting the virus and passing it onto their own at-risk patients.
She, along with many others who work at hospitals, has been missing that human touch. “No one really wants to be around me right now. I’m like an incubator,” Britt said.
She also doesn’t have the luxury of going to the grocery store and needs to rely on delivery services, since she could be a carrier of the virus without even knowing it. Even when she goes on runs, she feels the need to cross the street and distance herself as much as possible from others. “I’m hyper-aware of how close I am to people.”
Caring for COVID-19 patients can be heartbreaking and heartwarming.
Britt gets her social fix from her colleagues — “I get to go to work, and I get to hug people, we cry, we eat together,” she said — but also from caring for her patients.
Since the patients with COVID-19 are isolated and can’t see their loved ones, she knows she’s their main point of contact. She puts in the effort to have actual conversations and make jokes with them, even do a quick crossword puzzle.
“I’m the only interaction they have other than the doctor saying, like, ‘Hey you’re stuck here for two weeks,’” she said. It can be a lot.
There’s no escape from the coronavirus as a health care worker.
When your days intimately involve caring for patients with COVID-19, it quickly can feel like you can’t escape the pandemic.
At the hospital, Britt’s constantly being faced with the coronavirus, but when she leaves work, it’s constant as well. “You can’t even be on Instagram without seeing it — memes, jokes, how many freaking virtual happy hours can you do,” she said.
Many who are on the frontlines have experienced an influx of texts, calls and messages from people they haven’t heard from in a while, asking what the infection is really like and if it’s as bad as the news says. Most conversations outside of work also revolve around the coronavirus — it’s hard to escape.
Working overtime with no end in sight.
Mary Beth, a registered nurse in Connecticut who also asked to stay anonymous to talk about her job, said her hospital has been on “Code Orange” for about a week. This means that medical staff can be mandated to “stay over at the hospital as long as they deem necessary,” she said.
Nurses are encouraged to pack for up to a two-week stay in the event they have to hunker down at the hospital. Overtime hours get paid at time and a half, but that doesn’t count the hours spent sleeping at the hospital — those hours go unpaid.
A Code Orange presents all sorts of challenges for people who don’t have the luxury to immediately secure child care or caregiving and pet services in the event they can’t run home. Mostly, people take it day by day.
As of now, there’s no end in sight. Health officials tell us things will get worse before they get better. Our health care workers, who are already sacrificing so much, will likely need to make more sacrifices in the coming weeks ― all to keep providing round-the-clock care for those who are suffering from COVID-19.
“I’m not trying to do this all summer, I’ll tell you that much,” Britt said, “but people need help, and that’s why I became a nurse.”
- Stay up to date with our live blog as we cover the COVID-19 pandemic
- Trump rejects New York’s desperate plea for ventilators
- What you need to know about at-home coronavirus test kits
- How to file for unemployment if you’ve been laid off
- Avoiding going to the store? Here’s how to order groceries online.
- What to do if you live with someone with COVID-19
- How to get the most out of the weekend despite coronavirus
- The HuffPost guide to working from home
- What coronavirus questions are on your mind right now? We want to help you find answers.