‘This is all new territory’: How essential workers are coping with COVID-19

Lydia Daniels, 64, celebrates her retirement from Duke University Medical Center. Daniels worked at the facility as a nursing assistant until Feb. 1, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Lydia Daniels)

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, public health groups such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are emphasizing the importance of engaging in social distancing and other methods of isolation to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

However, for essential workers such as first responders, grocery store cashiers and health care employees, it isn’t always possible to self-isolate or quarantine at home.

Lydia Daniels, a 64-year-old nursing assistant, works at Hillcrest Convalescent Center on West Pettigrew Street in Durham. Daniels, who has worked at the senior care facility for 24 years and in the medical field for more than 40, said she’s never before seen anything like the current restrictions and precautions around COVID-19.

“A little cough or a little sneeze, I mean, your co-worker’s six feet away saying, ‘Do you have the virus? You should go home,’” she said. “Everybody’s panicking.”

Daniels, who works three days a week at Hillcrest, said the facility is taking precautions to ensure that the health and wellbeing of residents remains a priority. She said when employees enter the building, they must go through a process of washing their hands, taking their temperatures and answering questions about recent travel history.

She said should someone within the facility test positive for COVID-19, the center plans to keep the infected individuals in one particular unit.

According to Daniels, every employee is now required to wear a face mask to protect patients. Additionally, caregivers in the center are meant to stay 6 feet away from their co-workers. However, in Daniels’ experience, this can pose challenges.

“The only close contact is with the patient, which is really hard to do because sometimes we need our co-workers to assist us with some of the patients, pulling them up or different things that might be a little hard,” Daniels said. “But we’re trying.”

Daniels said the center has also stopped patient visits altogether, so the only people entering the facility are employees. However, according to Jackie Pinnix, activities director at Hillcrest, the facility has been trying to coordinate FaceTime calls between patients and their families.

Daniels said some residents and family members have been upset by these restrictions, since visitors can often provide support and ease patients’ anxieties in ways that staff cannot.

“(Patients) can tell that something is not the same and they’re used to seeing somebody sit there, that one face until they go to sleep,” she said.

Impact on in-home care

Jonathan Thommarson is the general manager at Home Instead Senior Care, a Durham agency that connects aging adults with caregivers to provide home assistance and support. Thommarson said the company has seen a number of individuals move back into their homes during the outbreak of COVID-19. He said he believes that the care provided by those working with an aging population is critical, especially during the current pandemic.

“So our biggest deal right now is we’re dealing with seniors that live in their home, and usually they are by themselves; they don’t have family that live with them or that are nearby,” Thommarson said. “And so we’re having our caregivers still go into the home and take care of those people because they might not have anybody else even to speak with that day.”

He said because a lot of their clients don’t leave their homes, the biggest risk for exposure to the virus is likely through family members and other visitors. Thommarson said that although Home Instead has sent out corporate training to nursing assistants about standard safety precautions, the company has also asked clients and their families, as well as caregivers, to restrict outside social interactions.

According to a March 16 study published in Science Magazine, 86% of all COVID-19 infections in China were undocumented before travel restrictions were put into place. In those cases, infected individuals experienced mild to no symptoms and didn’t seek care, meaning attempts to mitigate the virus’ spread — like social distancing or quarantining measures — are even more critical.

Caregivers at home

Daniels, who lives with her daughter and three grandchildren, said she has to isolate herself to the best of her ability when she comes home from work to avoid any exposure from her family. She reiterated the importance for health care employees to follow social distancing guidelines outside of work.

“You don’t know anyone’s lifestyle, who they’re around; we’re supposed to all be following the 6-feet-away (guideline), but it’s something we should have been doing for a long time or something we practice,” Daniels said. “That’s foreign. Americans, or people in general, don’t normally stay 6 feet away from people they interact with all the time; it’s not a habit.”

In addition to her work at Hillcrest, Daniels provides in-home care to two private duty cases. She also sometimes looks after her 82-year-old mother, who has lung disease and is immunocompromised. She said thinking about these factors, as well as her own age (which puts her at higher risk for infection), leaves her “in tears almost every day.”

“I’m really afraid because with doctors and nurses, and nursing assistants, and anybody in and out of the hospital and any medical facility, we are at the front line,” Daniels said.

She said she feels as though her time in the health care field has prepared her to some degree for all the changes and restrictions of working in a world with COVID-19. However, the uncertainty surrounding the virus has also caused her some anxiety.

“It’s almost like a dream; you never know what’s going on,” Daniels said. “This is all new territory.”

If you or a loved one think you may have COVID-19 and mild illness, the CDC recommends staying at home, isolating yourself from others and remaining in contact with your doctor.