Nurses everywhere are being called to the front line to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re a nurse, you’re likely under a lot of stress right now, especially if your facility is experiencing a high volume of coronavirus patients, combined with shortages of staff and personal protective equipment (PPE).
With more fear and unease than ever in our work environments, it’s important to arm yourself with all the facts, including how to protect yourself, your patients, and your loved ones.
Here’s our comprehensive overview to COVID-19 for nurses working on the front lines.
COVID-19: The Basics of Coronavirus
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is caused by a novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. This respiratory illness mainly affects the lungs, but growing evidence is showing that it can affect additional areas of the body, like the heart, especially in those with preexisting conditions.
According to the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common symptoms of COVID-19 include the following:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath
- Body aches
- Loss of taste or sense of smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
There are other less common symptoms that patients might have, and at present, if someone has had a possible exposure and then starts showing signs of illness two to 14 days later, they may consider getting tested for the virus.
Although the virus can live on surfaces for hours and even days in the right condition, it’s still mainly spread through person-to-person contact. That’s why using appropriate PPE is so critical for nurses working closely with patients.
Due to the massive influx of COVID-19 cases in the United States, public health organizations have urged sick individuals with mild cases to self-isolate and recover at home in order to keep medical facilities from becoming overcrowded.
However, for people who are experiencing severe respiratory distress and other life-threatening symptoms like those listed below, it may be necessary to get medical help immediately:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or a feeling of pressure on the chest
- Unusual confusion
- An inability to wake up or stay awake
- Bluish lips or face.
Advice For Nurses During COVID-19
Whether you’re working at a private medical practice, a hospital, or a long-term care facility, most of us nurses are being exposed to coronavirus patients on a daily basis, some of whom may be critically ill.
Understand Your Risk Exposure
The CDC has offered guidance on exposure to COVID-19 patients for health care personnel (HCP) based on your patient contact and use of PPE.
If you have had prolonged, close contact with someone who has confirmed COVID-19, and you weren’t wearing all the appropriate PPE for the situation, then you should be excluded from work and should isolate for 14 days after the most recent exposure. During that time, keep an eye open for any signs or symptoms, and get tested immediately if they appear.
What to do if your hospital has a PPE shortage: PPE has always been vital for health care workers, but it’s especially important now as a means for mitigating the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Proper coverings including masks, face shields, gloves and goggles help prevent the spread of germs and keep healthcare workers healthy. But shortages of PPE are currently causing stressful challenges across the health care industry, creating the need to find alternate ways to protect hospital staff during patient interactions.
Health care facilities are using contingency plans to stockpile and safely re-use PPE as needed. There are additional crisis capacity strategies including using PPE for selected activities, using PPE beyond the recommended shelf life, and considering alternative equipment that could be just as effective as the standard.
The facility you work at will have its own policies for appropriate PPE use and reuse as needed.
What to do if you’re high-risk or pregnant: While pressure is high for nurses across the globe, if you’re at high-risk for COVID-19 due to a preexisting condition, or you’re pregnant, there’s an even greater sense of urgency to stay safe.
Talk to your supervisor or occupational health services what their stance is on high-risk nurses working in patient care. They may agree to shift responsibilities of direct patient contact to other nursing staff to help mitigate your risk.
What to do if you live with someone who is high-risk: Health care providers who work with coronavirus patients daily feel the pressure to keep COVID-19 from coming home with them, especially if they have a high-risk member of their household.
Practice all the normal preventative measures, like hand washing, wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and routine cleaning and disinfection. Some people may also want the extra security that comes from changing out of work clothing and shoes before entering your home and then immediately getting into the shower.
Additional measures may include disinfecting your phone, light switches, and door handles, as well as placing shoes and clothes in garbage bags before washing them with detergent and warm or hot water.
Spread Facts, Not Fear
As the fear of COVID-19 has grown, the number of patient questions has increased. While we don’t have all the answers, the most important thing to do is reassure your patients by sharing accurate information about the virus and treatment.
If they come to you with concerns based on assumptions or unsubstantiated claims based on what they’ve heard in the news, do your best to counter those claims with proven facts from reputable sources.
If your patients are being discharged to recover at home, reiterate best practices for self-isolation and preventing the spread of the virus through social distancing and the use of face coverings in public.
Protect Your Health
As the pandemic continues, it’s more important than ever to protect your physical health as a nurse. While hours are demanding, be sure to rest and recoup whenever possible.
Studies back the importance of regular exercise in mitigating the effects of shift work, even if it’s just short walks in nature or light stretching after work. If possible, short naps during breaks may also increase alertness and aid in coherent decision making.
Manage Stress Through Self-care
As an essential health care worker, your mental health and wellbeing is just as vital as your physical health.
Even before the pandemic, burnout rates among nurses stood at about 50%. Now, many of them are working with coronavirus patients day in and day out, putting in long hours with insufficient support and resources. The work is emotionally and mentally taxing, and occupational burnout may be inevitable if you aren’t taking steps to combat it.
Be sure to consistently monitor yourself and how you’re feeling on a daily basis. Check in with your loved ones and schedule as much time as possible for self-care. Avoiding social media and the news during your days off can also help in avoiding confusing or false information about the coronavirus.
If you find your stress is interfering with your daily tasks, the American Nursing Association (ANA) has compiled an extensive list of resources for managing your mental health as a nurse working and living through COVID. You might also consider seeking the help of a mental health professional.
Remember, you’re playing a vital role in patient care and recovery, as well as keeping the families of sick patients informed and up to date. To continue performing at your best, it’s important to prioritize taking care of yourself.