I started my career in San Francisco as an AIDS nurse, so current events feel quite familiar.
Now as then, there is a disease without effective treatment. There was no time as a nurse to grieve, with loss after loss. Patients are afraid of being abandoned by their loved one. Nurses getting up every day and going to the hospital every single day and all night long. When nurses go home, we wonder if the patient will still be there when we go back.
Back then, politicians blamed Haitians and queer men for spreading HIV. Now xenophobes blame China or Muslims for contagious coronavirus.
Then we were anxious not to have contact with blood and other bodily fluids. Now, we have to be cautious just to share the air.
Now as then, we find ourselves missing the many patients and colleagues who left us behind all at once.
Back then we fought for protections from blood-borne pathogens. Now health care workers around the world are having to beg and rely on charity for the supplies that protect us.
Yes, I am afraid of getting and giving the coronavirus to my patients, co-workers, and family. But as an HIV, tuberculosis and even SARS nurse, I am getting to put my training to good use while working with the public health safety net’s finest. Putting on the personal protective equipment (PPE) before entering the room is both nerve-wracking and confidence building. Yes, it’s scary but it is far more frightening to be a patient suffering from a new disease.
I don’t feel like a saint and I have no desire to be a martyr. Just like Rosie the Riveter, I feel determined that “we can do it”. I didn’t get COVID 19 caring for a sick patient in their home and the ambulance because I had the training and the PPE and the teamwork. I still worried and took my temperature and kept away from people for 14 days. But others are not so lucky.
California began publishing the daily number of health care workers who tested positive. More than 11% of all COVID 19 cases in California are among health care workers. It may not be surprising that working closely with COVID 19 positive ill patients leads to disease transmission but the consequences of occupational spread are enormous.
A health care worker with a fever and a cough may only have a cold but must be isolated until there are test results and the symptoms have subsided. But every single health care worker who is getting tested is afraid: Did we unwittingly share this infection with other patients? Will our co-workers and family shun us? Did we accidentally transfer droplets from the respirator to our eyes?
On April 7th, there were 1,651 California health care workers who had tested positive for COVID 19 and by April 17th that number had more than doubled to 3,370. In only ten days, 1,719 health care workers found out they were infected with COVID 19. Approximately every ten minutes, another Californian taking care of others gets the news that they have been tested positive. Some of us have been out sick, most have recovered and too many have died.
The decreasing trend in new cases in San Francisco continues to give hope that the first wave of infections may be decreasing. Let’s flatten the curve all the way by giving all workers the PPE and the right training for the job. And making sure that there are more than enough staff to do the work while the sick ones recover.
Public officials need to do right by health care workers not just to be nice, but because we can’t take care of you if we are sick or dead. We don’t have a cure or a vaccine yet, but we know how to do our jobs. Just give us the tools.
Sasha Cuttler RN works for the San Francisco Department of Public Health and is RN Chair of Service Employees International Union Local 1021.