By ZOE GARDERET
Amid widespread unease, confusion and lockdown orders, nurses and doctors at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula are risking their health daily on the front lines of the global pandemic, managing stressful job changes compounded by fears of contracting the virus.
“We had to make the challenging decision several weeks ago that we would likely place our daughter at very high risk by keeping her at home with us,” says CHOMP attending emergency physician Reb Close, who organizes the emergency department for COVID-related issues. “We had to weigh out the risks and benefits of keeping her home or having her grandmother raise her for an unknown amount of time. It was a tough call.”
By deciding to keep their 10-year-old daughter with them, Close and her husband, another CHOMP doctor, must balance homeschooling with shifting work schedules to ensure that one of them is always home.
Cristina Borek, a nurse at CHOMP, explains that these concerns are prevalent among health care workers, especially for those with at-risk family members.
“Some staff are concerned about caring for patients because either they have their own health issues or live at home with family members that are elderly,” Borek says. “CHOMP has visitor restrictions in place to reduce the exposure to members of the community, as does Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital and Natividad Medical Center.”
CHOMP provides additional protective equipment to its staff—bandanas, masks, goggles and gloves—and has implemented external triage tents to separate patients with COVID-19 symptoms from those in the regular emergency department. The workers are finding that, though necessary, some of these new security measures depersonalize interactions with patients.
“I have found it more challenging to emotionally connect with my patients,” nurse Hanna Smith says. “I can’t hold someone’s hand when they are scared, and it goes against my innate nature as a nurse.” Smith adds that she must wear protective equipment for the majority of her 12-hour shift, which creates more discomfort and stress at work.
Behind the scenes at CHOMP, medical director Casey Grover is working tirelessly to create the hospital’s new protocol and update his staff with information every day. As both a physician and director for the emergency department, Grover works directly with patients while also developing the policies, procedures and plans related to the pandemic.
“Everything is changing daily,” Grover says. “We have changed our use of medication, how we talk to each other, how we do CPR.”
According to Grover, managing fear has been challenging because of a significant gap in reliable information.
“There has been very little good scientific data to help us plan,” the doctor says. “We are relying on anecdotes from other hospitals and other countries when we are used to relying on large scientific studies.”
At a virtual town hall with Senator Bill Monning on Wednesday morning, Grover discussed the deadly result of this lack of information. The fear of contracting COVID-19 has prevented people with unrelated injuries and illnesses from seeking medical attention, causing one confirmed fatality in Monterey County.
“There may be other [unreported deaths], and there have been over 10 cases where someone with a normal medical problem waited and showed up critically ill,” Grover says. “If you believe you are seriously ill, hospitals are committed to providing a safe, clean environment.”
The doctor stresses the importance of remaining informed on the topic from trustworthy sources, adding that anyone interested in learning more about the virus should visit Chomp.org/coronavirus/. The hospital has tried to reduce undue anxiety among its staff and the general public by updating this website with verified information.
“I appreciate that CHOMP has done such a good job at cutting back some of the panic by keeping the facts straight,” Smith says. “I am really lucky to work for CHOMP and live in such an amazing community.”
Beyond a desire to share information, another common thread runs through the narratives of each worker: Those in health care are doing their best to help each other out. The hospital’s doctors have discussed strategies like a multiple-family quarantine if the current situation worsens so that some can staff the hospital while others stay home with children.
If one thing has become clear from this crisis, it is the health care community’s ability to work together in times of need as they find creative solutions to an opaque situation by remaining positive, realistic and strong.