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Vermont Nurses On Coronavirus: 'We're Going To Protect Them, We're Going To Protect Ourselves'

Deb Snell leads two nurses' unions in Vermont.
Elodie Reed

Many workplaces are encouraging or requiring employees to work from home. That is, of course, not an option for health care workers who are on the front lines of treating patients sickened with the new coronavirus.

So how are nurses in Vermont preparing for and reacting to the potential for more cases of the virus here? Deb Snell is in the thick of that conversation, as the president of AFT Vermont and the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. Those unions covers nurses and other workers at UVM Medical Center in Burlington, as well as Brattleboro Memorial and Porter hospitals.

Deb Snell spoke with VPR's Henry Epp. Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: You’ve been in regular contact with hospital officials, I understand. Are you confident that nurses and nurses assistants and others who are doing hands-on care at the hospitals, will have the equipment they need, things like masks and gowns, to protect themselves from potential exposure to coronavirus?

Deb Snell: Yes. In fact, I just left a meeting at the hospital where they assured us that they did have enough of the … personal protective wear for all of the staff. So I think right now it's just a matter of being smart and washing your hands, staying home if you're sick, and nurses are well aware of that, as well as other workers in the hospital.

In terms of contact with your members in the unions, are you hearing concerns about coronavirus? What are some of the things they're sharing with you?

Oh, there's major concerns, especially about what happens if there is an outbreak at the hospital, because some of these community hospitals, if they have to start isolating staff, half their staff may be gone. We're not near that yet, and I think that's the concern, and those are the fears that we need to allay.

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OK, and so what do you what are you telling your members when they bring those concerns to you?

Right now, the hospital has been in communication. We're following CDC guidelines, which as everyone knows changes from like hour to hour, and just making sure that they are wearing the correct gear, that they understand that they may come in contact with the patient and we won't know for days that this patient actually became positive. Be smart, self-quarantine if needed.

So, essentially similar guidelines to what the general public is hearing right now?

At this point, yes. I mean, the hospital does have designated spaces for these patients to go to, so there is a plan in place.

In terms of contingencies for hospitals, you mentioned staffing levels. What are some of the plans that hospitals are working on right now if some nurses need to stay home if they're exposed?

Well, I think right now there's a lot of work in progress, working on that issue. I know that some of our staff that have had to self-quarantine because of their travel prior to it becoming such a big deal, they're allowed to work at home working on stuff like mandatory requirements for the hospital. They're letting them continue to work from home.

OK. So some of the sort of paperwork side of nursing …

The paperwork side, the mandatory side, all of that.

OK, but not the, obviously, hands-on care.

Not hands-on care. No.

Find a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the new coronavirus, plus resources, here.

How do you feel about the state of Vermont's response so far in terms of making sure that the public more generally is safe from this virus?

So I think the state itself is trying to give the public as much information as they can. It gets a little scary when you get like overloaded sometimes and the fear factor pops in. So I think as nurses, too, our job is to make sure that patients know that we're going to do right by them. We're going to protect them. We're going to protect ourselves. And we're going to do everything we can to stop the spread of this.

What should the general public know about nurses in a situation like this? The needs of nurses, the needs of all health care workers who are on potentially the front lines of a disease outbreak?

Yeah, I think for the general public, as far as nursing goes, we just need to make sure that the public understands that we may need to start enforcing some rules. For example, at our hospital, we have a pretty open-door visitation policy. That will likely change, probably in the near future, because we want to protect ourselves and our patients. Because if we can't take care of you, then that's where trouble lies.

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