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Checking the Pulse of Vermont’s Healthcare Workers

Rep. Mari Cordes, RN
Cindy Kleh
Cindy Kleh 23 Apr 2020

It’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t been affected by Covid-19. Some people have lost loved ones; others have been seriously ill. Workers with jobs that seemed secure just a month ago have found themselves in the unemployment queue wondering how they will pay for rent, utilities, mortgages, and medical costs. Some businesses are already contemplating bankruptcy.  

Others continue at jobs deemed “essential,” which expose them and their families to the virus every day they show up for work. Healthcare workers, in particular, are finding themselves in a dangerous situation with federal response coordination and personal protection equipment (PPE) in short supply. 

Heady Vermont reached out to some of these workers to see how the virus has affected them physically and mentally in the last few weeks. Responses varied depending on which career in healthcare they are involved in and how close to the “front lines” their job brings them. Some preferred to stay anonymous, fearing employer retribution and/or public backlash for speaking out during this tumultuous time. 

Covid Ward … As Close as it Gets

Annika McCann is the owner of  Primal Botanical, featuring full-spectrum CBD products handmade in St. Johnsbury, but she is also a nurse at the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital. 

Annika McCann

“(Being a hospital nurse) is my new day job,” she explained. “When my hospital stopped doing elective surgeries, I was temporarily laid off from my per diem job in the operating room. A week later, however, I was asked to work in the new respiratory isolation unit, where patients with suspected COVID-19 needing hospitalization go until their test results are back, and where patients who test positive stay.” 

“Our day surgery unit was hastily transformed into a negative pressure area (meaning no air escapes from the unit without being filtered) with a temporary double-door airlock,” she continued. “We enter in full protective gear: N95 mask with a surgical mask over it, face shield, shoe covers, hat, gown, and double gloves. Anything we bring inside the unit cannot be brought out, so no pens, phones, or paperwork. When leaving the unit, we remove all our protective garb inside the double-door tent entrance to the unit – that is, everything but our precious N95 masks.”

“N95s are made to be worn once and thrown away. At first we were told we could wear them for eight hours, then throw them away. Then we were told to wear the same mask every day. This week, the hospital began disinfecting N95 masks for reuse. I feel lucky to have an N95 to wear; in many other hospitals, they are less fortunate.”

“We need to maintain composure during this crisis and not be torn to shreds by our fear.”

“At home, I enlist a different sort of protection utilizing my herbal allies. I use usnea and lemon balm as antivirals; echinacea and astragalus for immune support; avena, skullcap, and CBD to soothe my frazzled nerves; and fire cider and elderberry syrup for immune support.”

“It’s not just the virus we are battling. We are coping with fear, anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness. Here is where CBD can help us. We need to maintain composure during this crisis and not be torn to shreds by our fear. CBD helps keep me calm so I can go back through the double doors, into the isolation unit.”

Exhaustion

Mari Cordes is a nurse at the UVM Medical Center who is also a state representative from Addison County. Although Vermont is trying to keep its legislature on track, some less pressing bills have been shelved for now to accommodate a focus on mitigating the economic and health issues caused by the pandemic, like the shaky future of Vermont state colleges. All lawmakers are now working remotely through electronic policy-making.

But Cordes has also found herself buried in communications with her constituents, mostly concerns about business and personal finances. She feels these are urgent matters, and it is her responsibility to answer each one in a timely manner. 

“We have planned well and we know the drill.” 

Although she is not working on a hospital ward that has Covid-19 patients, she is well aware of the stress her colleagues on those wards are experiencing, and she tries to keep the collective spirit and solidarity strong through supportive and informative Facebook posts. 

“The UVM Medical Center has the largest percentage of Covid-19 patients in Vermont, and Chittenden County has the largest concentration of skilled healthcare workers in the state. We have planned well and we know the drill.” 

Like most nurses, she is an “empath,” and it is always a delicate dance between taking care of sick and injured individuals and making sound decisions that will benefit all Vermonters. What gives her hope is the amount of love and support she has witnessed from the community. 

The Anxiety Has Subsided

Paul Jerard has worked as a Physician Assistant in the ER at the UVM Medical Center for 15 years, but 2020 has been particularly challenging. 

“In the ER, we wear full PPE when we go into a patient’s room. We treat everyone like they have the virus. We’re seeing a lot less of the usual stuff here.” He guessed that since people aren’t driving, working, skiing, going to bars, or falling, there’s fewer accidents happening right now. They are doing all they can to avoid the ER. 

“If we hadn’t closed businesses, the healthcare system might have been overwhelmed.”

Jerard admits that the first few weeks of planning and preparing for the Covid-19 virus to hit Vermont were anxiety-inducing for the entire staff, but they are feeling less stress now as they deal with patients and learn more about it. It is also comforting to see Vermont’s Covid-19 numbers climb very slowly. 

“On a national level, we could’ve been better prepared leading up to it, and we still don’t have the testing capabilities that we need for the country to go back to work and school. We will be ready when we can test every person who is sick and trace their contacts. There will still be people getting sick for months. If we hadn’t closed businesses, the healthcare system might have been overwhelmed.”

“A Profound Experience”

A triage nurse who works on a UVM Medical Center Hospital ward that does not treat Covid-19 patients at this time described her concerns and stress-inducers. The woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, is older and has always had asthma, so she is definitely in the more “at risk” category. 

She said that during the early stages, when the staff was preparing for the impending Covid-19 to hit Vermont, planning and securing protection equipment gave her an “adrenaline rush … like flight or fight. Our fear was from the unknown.” PPE rules were changing every week as more was discovered about the virus from other hospitals in hard-hit areas.  

“The more information they have, the safer we feel.”

She also stated the facts that make her sleep better at night, like Vermont’s present state of readiness for the virus peak as well as the cooperation of Vermont citizens in staying home and being smart. She praised Governor Scott for being prudent and for his transparency in getting information out to the public. “The more information they have, the safer we feel.”

She is worried that some Vermonters are not wearing masks in public, and stressed that even cloth masks (plus at least a six-foot distance) can keep asymptomatic people from unknowingly shedding the virus. She wears a cloth mask to work and uses a surgical mask during her 12-hour shifts, keeping a good distance from her coworkers at all times. UVM Medical Center has also moved all parking sites to locations that are walking distance away from workplaces. 

She said that all elective procedures were postponed, and some per diem employees were furloughed. The remaining nurses have set strict policies for Covid-19 patients and for any ER patients that test positive. “We’re triage nurses. We prepare. Every year we are rated the #1 trusted profession on Gallup polls. WHO (World Health Organization) named 2020 the Year of the Nurse.”

Behind the Scenes

Not every healthcare worker is on the front lines of the virus, but the ones in the backrooms taking care of records and screening patients through video conferencing are just as important. One medical assistant who works at the main hospital in Burlington and chose to remain anonymous had the option to reduce her hours, but she kept working full time. 

With only 1-2 other workers in her office each day, she feels ”very safe. We are constantly washing our hands and wiping down surfaces, and the janitors are doing an excellent job.” 

Although she misses face-to-face interactions with patients each day, the hospital’s Zoom program helps her screen them before doctors and providers see them on the secure network. 

She misses being able to see her parents, her extended family, and her 95-year-old grandmother, but she communicates with them via Facetime. 

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