A work routine involving daily exposure to COVID-19 can only be described as stressful. Concern for sick patients and colleagues, fear of contracting the virus and infecting loved ones has made worklife extremely challenging for everyone working on the health care front lines. Below, three nurses share how COVID-19 vaccination made an on-the-job difference for them.
As an infection prevention nurse in long-term care, Roukeya Agbere-Koumai was well aware of COVID-19’s potential to spread through a facility like wildfire. She was more than relieved at the early vaccination opportunity for residents and staff at The Reservoir, a skilled nursing facility affiliated with Genesis Healthcare in West Hartford, Connecticut.
In mid-December 2020, the Reservoir became the first long-term care facility in Connecticut to receive the COVID-19 vaccine through on-site programs administered by CVS Pharmacy teams.
“I received my second Pfizer vaccine on Jan. 29,” she says. “Overall, it made me feel really confident and safe in my workplace in the long-term setting, where we are the most impacted by this pandemic. It’s knowing my risk of potentially contracting the virus, the risk of getting critically sick and the risk of me potentially spreading it to my residents are all reduced. So I feel like I’m in a little, safe bubble where I’m at work.”
Before the vaccine became available, Agbere-Koumai was hypervigilant about also protecting her loved ones at home. Before walking through the door, “I’d take off my shoes, spray them with Lysol and leave them in the car,” she says. “I had special shoes for the house. It was straight to the basement, take off the uniform – it was just fear and paranoia.”
Now, she says, “After getting the vaccine, that fear is reduced. I still do hand-washing, sanitizing, disinfecting my work gadgets. I still take precautions at work and at home but it just feels like I’m not so afraid anymore.”
Residents at The Reservoir expressed joy and relief, as well. “When they heard we were getting vaccine clinics at the facility, they were excited to get it,” Agbere-Koumai says. “They were waiting for that particular day to come for a while. Their family members were on board, too, with great (vaccine) acceptance percentages among residents and family members. They were happy.”
The overarching reaction was: “There’s some light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “So the fear of what could happen (became) ‘OK, I’m good. We can get through this.'”
Families now benefit from eased facility restrictions made possible by COVID-19 vaccination. “We have window visits, outdoor visits and compassionate visits,” she notes. “So it has alleviated some of that burden of not seeing family members for a long time.” Many long-term facilities have allowed compassionate care visits to specific residents during the pandemic on a limited basis with a single visitor as an exception to visitor restrictions.
As the infection preventionist in the building, Agbere-Koumai uses her professional platform to promote vaccination. “I encourage and use my experience to educate my co-workers – and friends – who are hesitant about the vaccine. And, knowing that I’ve received the vaccine, I can then show myself as an example to my co-workers and explain the aftereffects, so they can relate to me as someone who has received it – and is living, breathing and doing fine.”
Roller Coaster Winding Down
Hospital intensive care units took in the sickest COVID-19 patients, with many on ventilators to receive breathing support for their compromised lungs.
“Working with patients and families affected by COVID-19 and associated atrocities has been a real roller coaster ride for me,” says Amita Avadhani, a nurse practitioner in the intensive care unit at Saint Peter’s University Hospital and an associate professor at Rutgers School of Nursing in New Jersey. “I suffer from motion sickness and cannot quite do roller coasters, to put this in perspective.”
As a nurse practitioner in the ICU, “the emotional and physical toll that COVID-19 created last year was not something I envisioned in my close to 34 years of my nursing career,” Avadhani says. “During the pandemic, I have seen many young, healthy people without medical issues not make it after contracting COVID-19. Any side effects of the vaccine are better than the risk of contracting the virus.”
Rutgers faculty members who see patients were among the first in New Jersey to become eligible in the state’s vaccine rollout. When the opportunity arose, Avadhani was eager to participate. “I was excited to get the vaccine,” she says. “The first time, I experienced some dizziness for a few minutes, then had a sore arm and itchy eyes. With the second dose, I had similar symptoms, accompanied by fever, chills and fatigue.”
By Feb. 2, two weeks after having received both doses of the Moderna vaccine, Avadhani was fully vaccinated. “Even though I did have a mild immune response after my vaccine doses, I was so thrilled to say I took the steps to protect myself, my loved ones and, most importantly, my patients,” she says.
At this point, Avadhani says, workdays are better because more control has been achieved over the virus. “We are also seeing less-severe cases of COVID-19 among patients who have been vaccinated, due to the protective effect of the vaccine,” she notes.
“This also makes me feel that there is light at the end of this very tortuous tunnel,” Avadhani adds. “In the hospital, we still wear masks, face shields and clean our hands as recommended – but there is hope for normalcy to return at some point.”
For Avadhani, “following the science” that supports vaccination safety and effectiveness is important. “The COVID-19 vaccine gave us hope,” she says. “Now, after a few months of being safely vaccinated, I can say that it has also given us the confidence about our ability to trust science and its ability to defeat this virus.”
Keeping Unvaccinated in Mind
The Navajo Nation has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Jan. 8, Lisa Bartleson, a volunteer crisis nurse for Project HOPE, received her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, New Mexico, where she spent six weeks this past winter.
Bartleson was both excited and grateful to receive the vaccine in her role as a volunteer at the hospital, where she worked as a part of the oxygen saturation team, monitoring oxygen levels for every patient on the COVID-19 ward among many other patient responsibilities.
Although Bartleson experienced some COVID-19 vaccine side effects, she was able to manage them. “About four hours after my first shot I became very tired and developed a headache, although that could have been a coincidence,” she says. “I went to bed early that night and woke up the next morning feeling fine, except for a sore arm where I had received the vaccine – it felt like I was lifting weights.”
Bartleson received her second vaccine dose the morning after her deployment at the Navajo Medical Center ended. She drove back to her home in Ketchum, Iowa, despite developing a mild fever later that day. Once again she was able to sleep off any side effects other than “a slightly sore arm” while enjoying a rare day off.
Next, she began volunteering in Idaho and Utah, administering COVID-19 vaccinations through different organizations: Medical Reserve Corps of Idaho and Team Rubicon in Utah.
For Bartleson, receiving the vaccine hasn’t really changed how she does her job. “I still take the same precautions,” she says. “Partly in solidarity with those still vulnerable to the virus and partly because there is still a lot to learn about COVID-19.” In addition, she says, “I still wear a mask everywhere in public and continue to practice good hand hygiene. I also still avoid crowded areas.”
Bartleson has lingering concerns. “I worry that as more people get vaccinated, people may become reckless and cause harm to those who may have not been able to receive a vaccine yet,” she says, suggesting that along with the large amount of misinformation available about COVID-19 vaccination online, it’s far too soon to become complacent despite the progress that’s been made.