'The Costs of COVID-19' Part 2: Frontline health care workers

NOW: ’The Costs of COVID-19’ Part 2: Frontline health care workers

Throughout the month of November, ABC57 Investigates is introducing a new series called ‘The Costs of COVID-19’. Part 2 focused on the emotional, physical and mental toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on frontline health care workers.

Coronavirus cases show no sign of slowing down and as flu season picks up, American lives are largely in the hands of our frontline health care workers. Workers who—stand in the face of death daily—risking their own lives to save our families and friends and hoping they are not bringing it home to their own families.

“He was deteriorating quickly, and you really just basically you know, watched him die,” Spectrum Health Lakeland Nurse Michaela Balfe said.  “And that was the first time that we really had to experience that.”

Michaela Balfe works as a primary caregiver at Spectrum Health Lakeland. She is in charge of checking vitals, giving patients medication, watching out for any changes in a patients’ status and answering difficult questions.

“How do we help him through that,” Balfe questioned.

That is just one of the questions frontline health care workers such as Balfe try to answer every day.

“You’re just constantly trying to emotionally support people who are really sick,” Balfe said. “It’s a lot to sort of manage emotionally throughout the day and try not to take home with you.”

It is about finding a support system at home and with your co-workers, according to Balfe.

“Taking that physical break and just really relying on the team members has been a huge thing for us,” Spectrum Health Lakeland Charge Nurse Karlye Visel said.

Karlye Visel is a charge nurse or the point person.

“Helping to make sure that the staff isn’t overwhelmed with the amount of patients that they have in their section, and then also kind of being a runner if they need medications brought to the room right away, if they need supplies brought into the room,” Visel said. “Just trying to limit the amount of staff that’s being exposed to the COVID patients.”

“There has been an additional workload,” Balfe said.

“So we all obviously wear our masks, the whole length of our shift and then we have our n95 as well that we wear when we’re taking care of any COVID suspected or COVID positive patients,” Visel said.

“The PPE is just so critical in maintaining my safety and my patient safety and then, you know, the community’s safety,” Balfe said.

The necessary safety precautions can be difficult, according to Balfe.

“Complicates the direct patient care by creating a barrier,” Balfe.

Balfe is in charge of many invasive nursing procedures, such as hooking up an IV. These are procedures that have gotten tougher because of the equipment health workers wear, according to Balfe.

“And so there’s this added element of stress that you’re working, you know with all of this gear on and you want to make sure that you’re able to still take care of your patient properly,” Balfe said.

Even if there is a patient emergency, extensive steps must first be taken, according to Balfe.

“I still have to stop and put on my mask, put on my face mask, put on my gloves, make sure everything is, you know, make sure I’m protected before I go in there, despite the urgency, you know, perhaps of whatever the situation may be,” Balfe said.

With PPE being such an extensive part of keeping both staff and patients safe, Balfe said things were initially very stressful. As time has gone on and donations have poured in, the team has found a consistency, according to Balfe.

“[Consistency] that help us be more confident that we have the PPE that we need,” Balfe said. “That we’re protected in a way that’s, you know, actually protecting us and our patients and our families at home, the community, you know, the outer community.”

Others, Balfe said, have not been so lucky.

“We have overall 87% of nurses that work in hospitals reporting that they are being pressured to reuse equipment,” RN and Co-President of National Nurses United Jean Ross said.

Jean Ross is an RN with National Nurses United, the largest organization of registered nurses in the country. The group recently released a study with data collected from nurses across the country.

“That’s where we’re getting our statistics and that’s why we say it’s probably even higher,” Ross said.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, local nurses believe work was a lot more stressful.

“The data was changing by the hour, what we were being told to do was changing by the hour,” Visel said. “There was a lot of uncertainty and stress on the staff and wanting to make sure that we were protecting ourselves and that we were going home safe to our families and not bringing the virus home to the family as well and so, just, it was very chaotic.”

The National Nurses United study found that 43% of nurses worry that they will bring the virus home to their own families. Now, Visel said the communication is much better and they are more prepared for what to expect, but the work is still tough.

“Definitely physically it’s been a challenge,” Visel said.

12, 13 hours nurses are on their feet working in tense situations with someone’s life on the line and sometimes, their own.

“We’ve had 1,866 healthcare workers die,” Ross said. “245 of them are registered nurses and we figure well over 355,000 healthcare workers have contracted the disease.”

These favors all take a toll, according to Visel.

“Emotionally, it’s been stressful,” Visel said.

Time does not necessarily make it easier, but Balfe and Visel agree it is about having a healthy coping method.

“Being able to rely on each other for those tough times,” Visel said.

Looking at the big picture, the numbers of nurses feeling new pains is growing, according to Visel.

“We’ve got 42% that of nurses who report feeling stressed, more than they did before the pandemic and 29% are just sad and depressed much more often,” Ross said.

“You really feel for your fellow healthcare workers who are experiencing less support, less support in the community, less support in their work place, trying to deal with this stuff,” Balfe said.

“If we were assured that the employers would take rules, regulations, laws seriously, that would go a long way toward making us feel better as workers and also keeping us safe,” Ross said. “The only way we can keep the public safe is to keep us safe, too. You don’t want to know what happens when you don’t have enough healthcare workers inside.”

For anyone who has a loved one fighting for their lives, your frontline health care workers want you to know you are not alone.

“We hear them, we understand that they’re stressed and we understand that they’re anxious and just know that we are trying our very best to keep them in the loop and keep them updated,” Visel said. “We have the restrictions in place, one, to protect themselves and also to protect ourselves, our team and our family members as well. Just be patient with us and we’ll all work together.”

Frontline workers know that this is the type of work they do and they are no strangers to illness and death in the workplace, but Ross said the sheer amount of it they face daily is what makes it all so daunting.

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