By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“[She] wears a mask when she cooks, then she takes it and eats it in her own room, trying not to have contact with her family,” said Weichao, a nurse and assistant professor at the University of Washington.
The Northwest Asian Weekly spoke with members of the Pacific-Northwest Chinese Nurses Association, who asked that only their first names be used due to employer restrictions, about what it’s like to work during this crisis.
“What we’ve heard from folks in our organization, and taking care of COVID-19 patients, our organization has been donating masks and giving to those folks so they wear a mask around their families,” said Weichao. While none of the nurses we spoke to have witnessed anyone pulling dramatically expanded working hours just yet, they acknowledged that everyone is extremely busy treating patients and addressing questions from concerned people that call in.
“I would say definitely I am worried, or I am concerned, with looking at the numbers right now,” said Candice, who works at a primary care clinic in Seattle. “It has been rapidly growing. Washington state, we started with that one case, and now…New York is having more numbers. I am doing okay in a way that I think I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing as a nurse. We need to feel safe in order to perform our jobs well, the social distancing, we need the public to help us to combat this.”
“It’s a very long battle,” added Cindy, a nurse who performs phone triage at a clinic downtown. “I don’t know how this is going to end. Looking at Italy, looking at China, it could go either way.”
The main thing concerning nurses is the lack of supplies. In order to deal with the shortages, health care staff are having to prioritize who most needs what. In some cases, nurses are being asked to re-wash and reuse supplies.
“Yes, we are facing shortages of supplies,” Candice confirmed. “In primary care, the patients that we see, everyone from birth to end of life, lots of these populations are at high risk…in this sensitive time, we are able to provide some services through Telehealth…so that we do not need to waste the supplies and can protect them.”
Weichao said the shortage is happening everywhere.
“There are locations where providers are given one mask a day—the N95—and let them decide how they are going to use this resource.” Other types of sanitary precautions include surgical masks and face shields. “There are hospitals that are starting to wear handmade shields— adding a headband and plastic—it’s better than nothing,” Weichao said. “We’re not at the point, like New York, who I saw on the news, they were wearing plastic trash bags.”
According to the nurses we interviewed, hospitals and clinics in no way wish to curtail the use of protective equipment by their staff—there simply isn’t enough. That’s one of the primary reasons states are asking residents to stay home and reduce the potential to put further burden on our system.
AAPI nurses hold a special position during this pandemic, due to their connection to their home countries. A small and now pertinent example is that, in Asia, it is already customary to wear a mask in public.
“Because of cultural background, the Asian community tends to have a lower threshold to wear a mask whenever they feel sick,” Cindy pointed out. “We have memories of the SARS outbreak, and so we trace it back to the memory of how to deal with that epidemic. The community here were more alarmed, even to begin with…Asian nurses were the first to wear masks at work.”
The AAPI community has stepped forward to assist, delivering boxes of masks to local health care facilities. Local nurses are purchasing goods directly from Asia in order to assist.
“Because of our stronger ties back home, we are buying masks, buying sanitizers. There is a limit of personal goods —the postal office in China limits 100 masks per package —so we’re asking all of our family members to mail 100 to us, so that we can donate to our colleagues at the frontline and hospitals,” Weichao said.
All three nurses urged the public to take COVID-19 seriously, pointing specifically to people who think that the coronavirus is “just like the flu.”
“We should not downplay it…there are young folks without any underlying conditions who are hospitalized…Those people who survived in China are showing permanent organ damage to their liver, et cetera. Young people are like, ‘If I get it, I get it.’ No. You don’t know how bad it could be. Don’t risk it. Not only for yourself, but also for others,” said Weichao.
“The public can do a lot to support nurses and help protect their neighbors by rejecting sensationalism and conspiracy theories,” said Sofia Aragon, Burien City councilmember who is also a nurse and executive director at the Washington Center for Nursing. “It would really help to share facts from legitimate sources, such as public health agencies, and remind friends and family of preventative practices.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.