‘We Are Scared and Vulnerable’: Voices From the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Crisis

More than 230 health care workers share their stories in an NBC 5 Investigates survey.

Health care workers at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in the Chicago area are pleading with communities to heed social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

“Our lives depend on this,” one Chicago nurse said.

More than 230 doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, technicians and beyond responded to an NBC 5 Investigates survey that aimed to better understand what health care workers are facing on the job.

An overwhelming number of responses said the lack of personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and gowns, was dangerously insufficient.

“When caring for a COVID-19 positive patient, we are given one N95 mask to use for the entire shift and have to place it in a zip lock bag,” said a Chicago nurse.

Nationwide, N95 respirators, which filter out 95 percent of airborne particles according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are in short supply, but according to survey respondents, less protective surgical masks are also scarce.

“One disposable surgical mask that we have to save and reuse every day,” said a health care worker in a southwest suburban hospital. “This is disgusting. This violates all PPE I have ever learned in 37 years of nursing.”

Please help us. We are scared and vulnerable. I feel like I'm working in a third world country with the lack of PPE!

A nurse from a southwest suburban hospital

Some health care workers said PPE is held tightly under lock and key at their hospitals and rationed daily. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they felt their hospitals were not doing an adequate job of limiting exposure of coronavirus to staff.

One nurse at a Chicago institution said while the hospital has a specific area to isolate coronavirus patients, nurses from all units are being rotated through, which raises questions of infection control.

“It makes sense in theory – make everyone work with those patients equally, but in practice, they are just exposing more of the nurses in the hospital, who, in turn, are passing it off to their respective units and nurses are being sent home in droves due to exposure…We will be completely out of nurses within weeks if this continues.”

Who is going to care for you and your loved ones when all the health care workers are sick?

A nurse from Chicago

Many respondents also expressed concern for the safety of other patients in the hospital. More than 70 percent who answered the survey said appropriate protective measures were not in place to keep safe those hospitalized with cancer, heart problems and other ailments.

A therapist wrote in saying, “patients with MRSA and VRE are no longer on contact precautions, instead we are told to ‘vigorously wash hands.’”

Another wrote: “We are caring for COVID-19 patients one day and being sent to care for chemo and transplant patients the next day and aren’t allowed to wear masks for these immunocompromised patients.”

‘Please take this seriously. Our lives depend on this.’

Photos on social media of hospital workers holding signs saying “We stay here for you, stay home for us,” is more than a message. It is a plea.

When asked in the survey what they would like the community to know, the vast majority said it was simple: stay home.

“Please practice social distancing. I see groups of friends, teenagers and mothers, getting together for walks and playing at the park.  This is NOT how to practice social distancing. If you really want to protect your health care providers, only go out if it’s necessary. Going out to the home improvement store because you think you’ll use this time to work on a big DIY project is not social distancing,” said a Chicago nurse.

Health care workers reiterated what local and state officials have been repeating for weeks. The only way to “flatten the curve” and not overwhelm the hospital system is to decrease interaction in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Eighty-one percent of survey respondents said they’d seen an influx of people to emergency rooms requested to be tested for the virus. Health care workers said it’s futile and dangerous.

“COVID-19 testing at hospitals must be approved by (the Illinois Department of Public Health)/CDC. Please don’t come to the hospital expecting to be tested for COVID-19 if you don’t meet their criteria.”

The days are long and lonely

While most are social distancing at home with family members, many health care workers said they haven’t seen their loved ones in weeks out of fear of unknowingly spreading the virus.

“Those of us taking care of COVID-19 positive-tested patients are working hard without much rest,” a Chicago doctor said. “Most of us are isolating ourselves from our family, which means we don’t get to see them at all or can only see them from a far. We aren’t sleeping in our own beds - if a bed at all.”

They have many of the same fears we do.

“My mom is 78 and has respiratory issues,” said one nurse, who cares for her elderly mother. “I go home…I change in the garage…and then straight to the shower. She places my dinner on a paper plate. I then use plastic silverware and talk to her on phone. I have an air filter in my room. I spray my bathroom and room daily with Lysol and wipe down the door handles every night and morning."

We are the country's necessary casualties.

A nurse from Chicago

Many respondents said it would be helpful to have hotels or other safe places to house health care workers.

“We are exposed constantly, and then we are going home,” one wrote.

“Why can’t we be housed in the closed hotels? We do not need maid service. We need a bed and shower.”

The respondents said the job has been mentally taxing as well.

“Patients are alone. No family can visit. They are extremely sick and in some cases are dying alone. Nurses are using iPads and phones for FaceTime with families.  It’s heartbreaking.”

‘We are fighting together, and we’re a family.’

Not many people can understand what health care workers are experiencing than their fellow colleagues. And that is who they are drawing inspiration from, according to survey respondents.

“Watching all my coworkers come to work knowing the possible exposure they can have,” a respiratory therapist wrote.

Many said the support and love from the community also lifts spirits.

“A thank you goes a long way. We are all strong and won't easily show our fears, but we are in this together with you our communities,” said an emergency room nurse.

We need your support as much as you need ours.

A nurse at a northwest suburban hospital

Respondents were split when it comes to donations of PPE.

Some members of the community have been sewing masks because of the supply shortage, but one worker said ‘do not donate to hospitals masks and gowns. The hospitals will not use them because they’re not sterile.’”

Another wrote: “Cloth masks do not adequately protect us from droplet or airborne illness. We appreciate your efforts, but the masks being made are only a last resort. I would rather have to re-use an N95 mask than use a cloth mask as I know it will protect me.”

Yet others pleaded: “Bring any masks they may have or gowns we can use.”

Those who wish to donate should call local hospitals before donating. Many of the health care workers called on anyone with N95 respirators, such as painters and other contractors, to make donations.

The state of Illinois is also soliciting donations, such as surgical and N-95 masks, gowns, gloves and eye protection.

“The little things that you bring such as bottled water, food, and letters or notes are so very appreciated.”

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