The evolving COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of the risks associated with nursing and the critical role of healthcare workers during public health emergencies. One of the ways that transmission of the virus occurs is through respiratory droplets that can linger in the air. This makes nurses who work closely with patients and perform aerosol-generating bedside procedures particularly vulnerable. While the pandemic is slowing in some places, future waves are likely. Here are some ways for nurses and their families to stay safe during these challenging times.
Stay Current on Policy Changes
As news of a novel coronavirus first emerged, hospitals and healthcare facilities scrambled to update their protocols to ensure patient and staff safety. In many instances, these policies remain extremely fluid and subject to change multiple times, perhaps daily, as more effective management and treatment techniques are identified. Employers often house policies and protocols in a centralized digital location so that nurses and other healthcare workers can refer to them as needed. Make it a habit to review this information at the start of each shift and always ask for clarifications.
Be Diligent About PPE
Given the suspected high transmissibility of this coronavirus strain, nurses must take extraordinary precautions to protect themselves and prevent unintentional spread to co-workers, patients and their families. Personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements vary based on facility and job duties and may include any of the following:
- N95 respirator, surgical or cloth mask
- Powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR)
- Goggles and/or face shield
- Gloves and gown
- Hair cap and/or shoe covers
To be most effective, PPE should be worn only as instructed and tremendous care taken during donning and doffing. Nurses should participate in fit testing for their N95 respirators on an annual basis and perform a positive or negative pressure seal check each time when donning their mask. Always remove PPE in the order outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), starting with notifying the trained observer and ending with a body review for residual contaminants before exiting the doffing area.
Self-Monitor for Symptoms
Researchers are still trying to understand the prevalence of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness. The CDC recommends that all nurses and healthcare providers self-monitor for any associated symptoms, including fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, and loss of taste and/or smell. If symptoms emerge, immediately self-isolate and report to your occupational health program or via another pre-determined reporting channel. Nurses who may have been exposed to a confirmed positive case and were not wearing critical PPE will be restricted from working for at least 14 days from last exposure.
Support Your Mental Health
An influx of acutely ill patients, strict infection control protocols and staffing shortages can place significant mental and physical demands on nurses, who are already in a career at high risk for burnout. The stress of the pandemic may push some beyond their limits. Many employers offer counseling through employee assistance programs or have dedicated psychologists as part of the care team. Using these services may be helpful in addressing anxiety and trauma stemming from the pandemic.
Minimize Unnecessary Exposures
While all exposures cannot be eliminated, there are viable options for reducing your overall risk. Be diligent about practicing social distancing and wear proper PPE when this is not possible. Frequently disinfect your work area as well as shared spaces at home, such as computers, countertops and restrooms. Consider changing out of your work clothes before entering your vehicle and showering as soon as you arrive home.
Providing patient care during a pandemic is unsettling, and perhaps downright scary, especially as it relates to protecting yourself and your family. From staying current on policy changes to addressing mental health concerns as they arise, you can retain some control by implementing proactive measures and remain well throughout this public health emergency.
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