Veteran ICU nurse Pam Tavarone survived a debilitating case of COVID-19 and went back to work at St. Mary’s General Hospital in Passaic, her nurse’s professionalism overcoming the emotional trauma. She only sees a few COVID patients now as New Jersey’s overall caseload continues to drop. But if a second surge hits?
“I feel like we’re ready,” she said. “There are days when you feel like, ‘oh my God I can’t do this anymore,’ or ‘I can’t do this again.’ But overall, I think generally it’s given us a little bit of an insight and preparedness for the next wave.”
Leaders at one health care union with 13,000 members say a soon-to-be-released survey shows 20% of respondents got COVID-19. More than half believed they were exposed to the virus. Many feel shell-shocked.
“There’s an initiative right now in New Jersey to create a task force to look to meet the needs of the emotional health of the health care workers,” said Deborah White, president of HPAE, Health Professionals and Allied Employees.
White described the experience of one worker.
“She can’t talk about it without tearing up. She talks about running out of body bags in her facility because there was so much death,” she said.
Union officials want to meet with hospital administrators over personal protective equipment stockpiles out of concern there won’t be enough. They also want more focus on mental health.
Dr. Shereef Elnahal of University Hospital in Newark recognizes the trauma that stressed frontline workers there.
“People were dying, day and night, regardless of everything we did,” he said. “So that is stress people remember. They’re triggered by different things now on the units. We’re making sure that we give them all the psychosocial support that they need through our Department of Psychiatry.”
When COVID-19 cases completely overwhelmed University Hospital, the Army deployed a medical reserve unit to assist critical care staff.
“One of the nurses as we came in said, ‘It feels like Christmas,’” said Army Medical Task Force Maj. Erin Velazquez in an interview with NJTV News on April 17.
“We were facing some of the worst staffing issues I’ve ever seen in a hospital. So many people were out — not just with coronavirus, but who had ill family members, who had child care issues. There were a lot of reasons to call out and take leave and that left our nursing staff down by 33%,” Elnahal said.
New nurses, new drills
Elnahal called for a domestic medical workforce that can be deployed during pandemics. Meanwhile, Hackensack Meridian just hired 400 new nurses and it’s running drills for all staffers.
“We’ve just re-instituted retraining for everybody on PPE for those people who are going to be in situations who need to wear a Papper — the whole hazmat suit, training in donning and doffing. We’re re-fit testing people on their N95 respirators,” said Dr. Paul Varga. “I feel a lot better about our PPE.”
Varga, who is chief physician executive at Hackensack Meridian Health, has a COVID 2.0 playbook that sets up medical teams to manage ICU patients.
“We’ll have both of those models in place where we’re really shoring up our core staffing in the areas that we know we have to be prepared for, but also look at our surge models,” he said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that surge, combined with a fall flu season, could yield one of the most difficult times in America’s public health experience.