© 2024 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Seattle Nurses See The Growing Coronavirus Pandemic Up Close


The Seattle region has been the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. There are more than 1,000 cases in Washington state, and that number is constantly rising. Nurses there are seeing the growing toll of this pandemic up close, and, as Will Stone reports, many of them feel scared. They feel confused and unprepared.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: For 39 years, intensive care nurse Mary Mills has prepared for all kinds of emerging infectious diseases.

MARY MILLS: SARS, MERS, H1N1 - initially, when we were intubating all the really sick AIDS patients, everybody was on the same page. We were all trying to figure it out.

STONE: But this time, with coronavirus, it feels different.

MILLS: What they decide I need in terms of my safety is being changed based on availability of product rather than - rather than the science.

STONE: Mills works at one of the five hospitals run by Swedish Medical Center in the Seattle area. Like many health care workers, she's frustrated because the guidance on protective equipment keeps changing. And she's concerned that management is not taking safety seriously enough, especially after some nurses she works with got sick.

MILLS: One went out with a, you know, cough and a fever, all the classic five symptoms. On the eighth day, they finally agreed to have her tested for COVID-19.

STONE: Mills says this only further erodes trust. Thousands of nurses at Swedish hospitals went on strike in January and still have no contract. Their biggest issue is understaffing, which the nurses say can affect patient safety. Now with coronavirus, Mills worries there won't be enough nurses.

MILLS: Well, a room and a ventilator don't mean anything if you don't have a nurse.

STONE: Dr. Chris Dale, chief quality officer for Swedish, says the hospital system just launched pop-up clinics where staff and patients can get tested.

CHRIS DALE: Our No. 1 priority remains caregiver safety. We can't effectively provide safe care for patients if our caregivers first aren't safe.

STONE: Dale says they've also hired about 300 temporary nurses called travel nurses. But the reality is there are not enough masks and other equipment. At Swedish and other hospitals, nurses and doctors are being told to try to clean and reuse their N-95 masks. Wendy Shaw is the charge nurse for an emergency room in Seattle.

WENDY SHAW: So we now have to learn how to work with less and how to be good stewards of the resources that we have.

STONE: Shaw says at her hospital, critical supplies are now locked up, and she's the gatekeeper. She has to question anyone who comes to get a mask.

SHAW: What are you using it for? What patient? What's the procedures? So I have become a jailer, in a sense, of these masks.

STONE: She has Type 1 diabetes, and so does her son. That makes them both high risk.

SHAW: I am cleaning like I have never cleaned before. I'm hyperaware of what I touch, who has brushed up against me.

STONE: Some nurses are even crowdsourcing masks. Bobbie Habdas, another ICU nurse at Swedish, took to Facebook.

BOBBIE HABDAS: I never thought that we would necessarily be doing this.

STONE: Her post took off, and she's now collected more than 100 masks.

HABDAS: It honestly - it shocked me, and it just really touched me.

STONE: The outpouring was a bright spot, but Habdas wonders why nurses have to scrounge for supplies.

Sally Watkins is executive director of the Washington State Nurses Association.

SALLY WATKINS: They are not being protected at the level that they should be.

STONE: But she's hopeful the region will get more supplies from the federal stockpile soon. Mary Mills, the longtime ICU nurse, says all these problems are distracting at a time when there are patients in Seattle who are dying from COVID-19, sometimes dying alone.

MILLS: The tragedy of not having family there to support the super-sick and the only people there are the ICU nurses.

STONE: And Mills wants to be present for them. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone