‘On the front lines of a war’: Nurses describe life during pandemic

Beebe Healthcare staffers administer coronavirus testing during a drive-through clinic on March 14. Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

When Annamarie Flick gets home, she has a station set up in her garage, with a laundry basket and hand sanitizer. She changes her clothes and wipes down her phone. Her shoes and work bag stay outside.

“Nothing comes in anymore, just to try to keep everything safe,” she said.

Ms. Flick is a registered nurse, and she’s among the health care workers on the frontlines of COVID-19.

She, and other nurses across the state and country, are taking added measures to prevent the spread of the upper respiratory virus that has resulted in 232 total cases, 33 hospitalizations and six deaths across Delaware as of Sunday, according to data from the state Division of Public Health.

“We are self-quarantined once we’re out of work,” Ms. Flick said, noting her husband is a postal worker who also is considered an essential employee. “We limit going anywhere, seeing anyone outside of our immediate household.”

Leslie Verucci, an advanced practice registered nurse and president-elect for the Delaware Nurses Association, said that work and home life is changing for many nurses across the state.

“I have to say this for all our healthcare workers, not just nurses, they feel like they’re on the frontlines of a war right now,” she said. “They’re having to leave their kids with strangers or at home. They go home, it’s this idea of having to completely strip down before you can even have quality family time. And just the fear of what you might come in contact with that you don’t want to take home to your family.”

Ms. Verucci said that Delaware is removed from natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes that have caused massive destruction, leaving the state somewhat isolated — until now.

“This is really something I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” she said. “We have had small, little issues occur where we’ve had to buckle down and pull the forces together for other viruses or flus that we were trying to prevent. You have maybe a scabies outbreak in a health care institution, things like that, but nothing to this extent that is running so rampant.”

Ms. Flick said her household has stopped visiting with her parents and in-laws, as an added measure of safety.

“We do a lot of FaceTime — Sunday dinners on FaceTime with the parents,” Ms. Flick said. “We’ve completely cut ourselves off because it’s just not worth taking the risk.”

That’s had an impact on caring for her three children, she said.

“My parents and my in-laws were a huge part of helping us take care of our kids,” she said, adding, “They are home now so hopefully the homeschooling takes it easy on us.”

Ms. Verucci said another impact has been the sleepless nights.

“You go to bed, you’re going to sleep, but you’re very restless for fear of what you’re walking into the next day,” she said.

The nurses interviewed emphasized the importance of social distancing, and the need for PPE — personal protective equipment — in the health care system.

Ms. Verucci said that many nurses are wearing masks all day now, which differs from when they were mostly wearing PPE during known isolation cases.

Ms. Flick said nurses are wearing masks in rooms with patients, which isn’t their usual practice. Even though their usage has increased, she noted that they want to conserve their supply, so they use the PPE when appropriate.

“Although we don’t have a shortage right now, we worry about what’s coming,” she said. “Although the surge in Delaware is a little behind other states, we see what’s going on in other states. So [we need] to be in that position of being able to protect ourselves when the time comes that we have this influx of patients.”

Both at home and at work, Ms. Verucci said precautionary measures are important for the nurses. It’s also important for everyone else, too, to practice social distancing and follow Gov. John Carney’s mandate to stay at home when possible to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, because it could impact the nurses and health care workers.

If health care workers get ill, Ms. Verucci said, they won’t be there to assist other patients who come in with strokes, cardiac events or other non-coronavirus but life threatening needs.

“We need to protect ourselves for all the others too. A little kid that falls off the bike playing and breaks his arm needs to be treated. The little kid that falls down and has a huge laceration needs somebody to treat them,” she said. “Parents can’t do that; you can’t lock them in a home and expect somebody at home to take care of those things. So [if] we lose all the frontline people by not using the correct safety precautions, we lose a lot. It’s a big domino effect.”

Ms. Flick, who serves as chairperson of the advocacy committee for the board of directors for the Delaware Nurses Association, said that Delaware is no different from surrounding states, and health care workers need adequate access to PPE such as masks, respirators and access to more tests with a quicker turnaround time for results.

“Providing us with equipment and more testing access is critical to keeping us at the bedside to care for our community,” she said.

Members of the community are heeding that call. Earlier this month, Sussex Technical School District donated extra medical supplies and protective equipment to staff at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital in Seaford and Beebe Healthcare in Lewes.

The donations included 8,800 gloves, 35 surgical gowns, 30 personal protective gowns, five biohazard protective kits, seven boxes of alcohol wipes, 23 bottles of hand sanitizer, 10 boxes of masks, 11 boxes of thermometer covers, sanitizer wipes and other supplies. The items were provided by the high school and adult education health professions programs and the high school nurses’ staff.

ChristianaCare, in partnership with business owners Richard Piendak and Dave Tiberi, opened a second public donation center for supplies in Middletown over the weekend to gather items including masks, scrubs, goggles, cleaning solutions, gloves and more.

“There’s been a lot of emotional upset when PPE wasn’t available, because it’s kind of like, ‘Wait a minute, guys, what about us? Like, there’s no protection here, you’re dumping us in the lava pit and we’re not getting any help,’” Ms. Verucci said.

She has seen a lot more equipment come forward now.

“The construction companies, the other engineering companies donating things, helping us along has just been phenomenal, because without it I don’t know where we would be,” she said. “We could easily start to lose people; they could just say, ‘I’m not doing this anymore, I have a family,’ and leave the health care profession altogether, along with the risk of getting sick.”

Later, Ms. Flick added that there’s an emotional component for her children too.

“I not only worry about keeping them healthy but I worry about their mental health as well. My youngest has cried when I talk about going into work,” she said in an email. “She wrote one of her school assignments about her worry about me getting sick, working longer and being so stressed. We have to put on our brave face for our patients, children and parents when we really just want to cry.”

Both she and Ms. Verucci, however, said there’s a lot of pride in being a nurse now.

“It’s been really neat to see how the entire health care world is stepping up to the plate and really supporting each other,” Ms. Verucci said.

Ms. Flick said even with the fear, the morale is strong.

“I am proud of being a nurse and working alongside some of the most amazing healthcare professionals,” she said. “We are still there and will continue to be there to care for your loved ones like they are one of our own.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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