‘I knew this was going to be a problem.’ L.A. nurse describes life in the early days of the pandemic

 ‘I knew this was going to be a problem.’ L.A. nurse describes life in the early days of the pandemic

I’m a medical-surgical nurse in an acute care unit. I’m also an oncology nurse. I treat a lot of lymphomas and leukemias, the kinds of cancer that people need to be hospitalized for about a week while they receive treatment.

I remember the last time I was in a gathering with lots of people: Jan. 27. That date just rings in my ear, in my head. Someone asked me, “What do you think about this coronavirus?” Because I tend to live on the impending doom side, I was like, “Well, it could be really bad.” But then I thought, Maybe I’m being dramatic. So I started to watch the LA County COVID-19 clock, a Department of Public Health website that tracks coronavirus infections and deaths. I remember when we were at 20 cases, and we’ve now surpassed 275,000.

By mid-February, I knew that this was going to be a problem. From March 3 to 5, my friend had a 50th birthday celebration and we all went to Minnesota. I was really scared to go. The following Thursday, the pandemic was declared. I remember hugging a friend and almost crying. I thought, This is the last time I’m ever going to hug somebody. I still remember that last embrace. I don’t think I’ve hugged anybody since.

Before my hospital had strict coronavirus isolation policies in place, in April 2020, I was exposed to a coronavirus-positive patient. I was the lead nurse that day and I had to assist another nurse in a bloody 90-minute procedure. This patient had HIV, so I had gowned up with double gloves and I wore a face shield.

The following day, I was about to go out for a walk when I got a call from the hospital. They told me I had been exposed to a patient who was positive for COVID-19, but they told me I could still work as long as I wasn’t symptomatic.

I was shocked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was advising that once you’re exposed, you’re supposed to quarantine for 14 days. I had this moment of feeling really abandoned, struggling with figuring out the right thing to do. I immediately felt that I was going to be alone in it. That’s the biggest scary part of this virus: the isolation of being sick and being alone.

I remember another nurse telling me, “Just take leave. Maybe you can come back whenever.” I was like, “What? Are you going to kick me out now? Because this calling to be a nurse, it’s really true. I want to be there.” I was confused, upset, emotional. I didn’t know what to do.

At that point, tests weren’t readily available. I took a day off, using my sick leave, engaged all my organizer friends, and finally found a clinic. I drove an hour and a half. I begged them to test me. They said, “Fine, but don’t tell your friends because we won’t test them.”

Then other organizer friends found an ear, nose, and throat doctor at my hospital who said, “We’ll test you, don’t worry. Give our number to every nurse at the hospital.” I gave the number to my manager and to everybody else who was exposed. Everybody was able to get tested.

I went to my organizing community for help because I understood that this was a political problem. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the CDC, other countries were trying to give us access to testing. But with Trump, the United States was refusing help, deciding to make its own tests. This ultimately put us far behind in being able to isolate or quarantine people. People should still get tested, but contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine essentially only work at the beginning of an outbreak. We’re beyond that now.

In the beginning of COVID-19, it was really chaotic; we didn’t have tight systems in place. We were penalized for wearing masks—and nurses were showing up with N95s and face shields. We were very limited on what personal protective equipment (PPE) we could have; we had to prove we needed them. And we are an oncology unit—we have to protect our patients who have weakened or no immune systems!

Now we screen every patient who is admitted to the hospital for COVID-19. But for several months, it felt like there were no procedures in place to protect us. I think my initial experience changed the policy.

At the end of June, though, I found out I had been exposed twice since the first time. Some of my patients had originally tested negative but started to have symptoms of COVID-19—fever, cough, fast heart rates, etc.—and we decided to retest them. They had “converted”—now they tested positive. I was also asked to be part of a COVID-19 unit, and I worked there for six weeks. Whether you are on a COVID-19 or non-COVID-19 unit, the danger of being exposed is everywhere.

Working in a hospital like mine, time and time again, you realize that you are underfunded, understaffed, underresourced. You realize that issues of health and wellness are not well understood—that social and political conditions create poverty and illness. This is what propelled me to become an organizer. I started to see how state violence maintains conditions of ill health.

For example, during COVID-19, Los Angeles has completely abandoned the community of Skid Row. There’s no food, housing, or even clean water to wash one’s hands. In response, organizations like Los Angeles Community Action Network have created mutual aid programs that not only provide healthy food, but also build hand-washing facilities throughout the community. The city has given up, but we have not!

I’ve been involved in the protests and uprisings around police brutality in Los Angeles, and I’m not the only one. Some doctors and managers at my hospital have shown up, which is great. It makes me feel not alone, makes me feel proud. I’ve been really happy to see on every flyer, “Mask up!” But I’ve also seen these rallies with people just standing there and shouting. I’m like, “Just march! Please start moving! Move through the air, open it up, take the streets. Just spread out, spread out.”

People are willing to risk their lives, and not just against the police and getting shot with rubber bullets and getting tear-gassed and hit with batons. They’re willing to risk their health. It’s like, “I may get a virus that may kill me.” And that is amazing because against all odds, we are putting ourselves out there. The momentum is so strong right now. We’re willing to do anything right now for freedom.

In the context of COVID-19 and uprising, we need to embrace that this rebellion is really about structural racism. It’s about how the Black community has been disenfranchised—from health care, housing, schools, land—and then controlled, contained, and criminalized by the police. We’re not going to get out of this pandemic alive and preserve the lives of Black people unless those things are addressed.

That’s why Black people are disproportionately dying of COVID-19—because everything you hear is about “COVID positive, COVID negative.” None of it is about the structural issues that cause hypertension, diabetes, heart failure—all these things that make you susceptible to dying of COVID-19. Structural racism is killing Black people alongside the police.

In the beginning of the pandemic, I was seeing nurses drop like flies—go on leave, lose weight. Now, we’re readjusting. I miss being able to hug my fellow nurse friends, because we need that camaraderie. I miss not being afraid to touch the patient, a kind of closeness that you could have without fear.

The job’s already hard. It was already a crisis; it was already back-breaking. It was already a job that made you cry. But I cherish how strong everybody is.

Virginia Eubanks is an associate professor of political science at the University at Albany, SUNY and co-editor of the Digital Welfare State project currently incubating in the Voice of Witness Story Lab.

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