A nurse's coronavirus journal: 'The new normal of this pandemic sinks in'

A nurse's coronavirus journal: 'The new normal of this pandemic sinks in'

In the first instalment of the ER diaries, a California nurse journals from the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic

nurse illustration
Illustration: Jocelyn Tsaih/The Guardian

Today is my first shift back after the California governor called for us to “shelter in place” three days ago. The roads are noticeably less congested, yet the drivers are more edgy, going nowhere. I’ve received emails all week about changes at work, but until I see the department with my own eyes I won’t really know the impact this disease is having on me and my co-workers.

Parking is a breeze; the courtyard outside the main entrance is vacant. I follow another guy who is dressed in plain street clothes into the hospital. We’re stopped and asked questions that have become so customary I can repeat them in my sleep: any cough, fever, international travel within the past two weeks or contact with known Covid-19 patients? My badge gives me exclusive access while the guy I followed in is turned away. He grumbles a bit under his breath and makes one last effort to convince the security staff that he should be granted permission to enter, only to be shot down again and told more sternly to leave for everyone’s safety. As I walk away down the hall, the new normal of this pandemic sinks in.

Our pre-shift huddle, which used to last a few minutes tops, going over our assignments and snap shots of what to expect, now lasts 20 minutes and could have lasted 20 more had we not needed to relieve our exhausted co-workers. Last week we were told Covid-19 patients would be treated as if the disease were airborne; today it’s through droplets. What will it be next week, I wonder? Everyone knows our biggest issue as healthcare workers is our lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), which we are told to only use in case of emergency. That gets nervous laughter from some, stunned silence from others and defiant curses from others. How can an administrator tell the frontline workers not to protect themselves for the sake of conservation while they hand down their decrees from the safety of an office? More confusion, more anger, more fear and more doubt.

Once on the floor, I find a desolate department absent of our typical overflowing, bustling chaotic workplace. For once, only the sick are in the hospital. The PSAs are actually working! For the first time in the decade I’ve been working as a healthcare worker, the warning to stay home unless absolutely necessary has been heard and obeyed by the masses.

When we’re not seeing patients, we use the time to wipe down every surface possible with bleach wipes, go over techniques on donning and doffing PPE, catch up on new policies regarding Covid-19 patients and take turns running through mock scenarios in the makeshift Covid tent that now resides outside the hospital.

Our jobs are made smoother by perfecting the algorithms, trusting that our co-workers know what to do in an emergency and staying up to date on the most recent medical education. That all seems to be out the window now. Adaptation to a constantly changing disease has us all buzzing, rumors abound, stories from co-workers in other states fry our nerves at what we could possibly expect in the next few months. I leave my 12-hour shift absolutely exhausted from going over worst case scenarios over and over in my head, even though in hindsight it was one of the slowest shifts I’ve ever worked. I know this can’t last. Something has to give.