By Brian Ostrander
Webster Nursing department students photo courtesy of Webster University
“We are really in a good era to handle this, if ever there is a good time.”
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to test every facet of America’s resolve and the situation evolves by the day. There is no corner of the globe that has not felt the impact of the outbreak, producing headlines of all flavors from grim to harrowing to bewildering. Webster University is, of course, no exception.
While much of campus life is, indeed, on hiatus, Webster Nursing students are rising to their community’s call through a volunteer effort spearheaded by program instructor Mary Ann Drake.
“We are doing contact tracing there,” Drake explained. “(St. Louis) County trains people. Jodie Spiess, one of our nursing faculty, has developed a strong partnership with the County and they called her and asked if we could help. We have both graduate and undergraduates involved with this.”
Kimberly Carter, a 12-year veteran oncology nurse, volunteered for her first eight hours on April 10.
“It was very interesting, and I learned a lot about how the St. Louis County Department of Public Health is involved with this COVID outbreak,” Carter said. “They break the teams of volunteers into three groups: Case Investigation, Monitoring and Contact Tracing.”
Carter was assigned to the monitoring team.
“This group follows up daily with COVID-positive patients to ask about their symptoms,” she said. “Once a positive COVID patient has reached 14 days from beginning of symptoms and three days symptom-free, then their case gets moved over to the chief medical officer (CMO) to review. The CMO will then send them a letter stating they are officially off quarantine.”
Carter stressed that the CMO at the St. Louis County Department of Public Health is the only one who can declare someone off quarantine; patients are not allowed to get their release from a primary physician.
“All positive COVID test results go to the public health department for that county/city. Once the department gets the positive test, a volunteer is set up as a case investigator, who will will the first phone call to the patient to gather full H&P, along with symptoms and any contacts that were face-to-face up to two days prior to their symptoms,” Carter explained. “The contact tracing volunteer would then call all those contacts to let them know they have been exposed to a COVID-positive patient and put them on quarantine for 14 days. Very interesting operation they have. They are desperately needing more volunteers as the cases have increased.”
Carter, a wife and mother of two, is completing her BSN at Webster online, while going to work five days a week on the floor at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“I’m not a fan of online classes,” she explained. “I’m old-school, I like going into a classroom face-to-face; however, I am doing it and getting through it.”
Spirits remain high at home, according to her.
“My husband is still working 20 hours a week, however paid for 40 hours so he is home three days of the week to keep order around the house during the daytime,” Carter said. “My children are 12 and 16, so they can stay home alone when need be. The biggest challenge for me is keeping my kids on a schedule. Right now, school is still enrichment-only in our district so I’m having a hard time keeping my 16-year-old interested in doing any work since it ‘doesn’t count for a grade’ as of yet. Other than that, I feel that I have been blessed. So far, my family and friends have all remained healthy.
“I feel like the community is doing, overall, very well. People are staying home, ordering locally for carry-out or delivery to help keep local businesses going, and thank God we have electronics to allow people to meet virtually and or work from home, as well as have virtual doctor visits. We are really in a good era to handle this, if ever there is a good time.”
Carter finds reason for St. Louisans to remain optimistic about the capabilities of the local health system.
“I do feel we waited longer than we should have to push the stay-at-home order. However, I feel that St. Louis is more prepared than other cities. We are also big enough to have a lot of resources; however, we are not as big as many of the other cities in our country that are packed in with a lot more people with less resources.”
Kristen Main, another seasoned nurse specializing in surgery and just three weeks away from her BSN at Webster, works in the Center for Advanced Medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Cases in elective surgeries have dropped, but the staff remain vigilant with screenings on anyone entering hospital facilities.
“All entrances are staffed with employees and security,” Main explained. “The screening questions include: Have you been outside the city of St. Louis? Fever? Unbearable cough? Exposure to a COVID-positive person? If a person says ‘yes’ to any of these, they are redirected to the ER – for patients’ and employees’ health.”
On top of intensive screening and testing measures, Main believes information is one of the community’s best tools for combating the virus.
“Knowledge is power and it is our duty to pass along anything we can to help,” she said. “I believe the best thing we can do for the community is give accurate information. Too many times, people see what someone shared on social media and believe it’s true. Locally, our hospitals are staffed with physicians who are in the top of their field. Being in the middle of the country has also allowed us to gear up and be ready for COVID. BJH is ready for the worst. I try to give neighbors and patients accurate information as it comes available. I feel as like being a nurse in this pandemic has made me someone my neighbors look up to for information and direction.”
Main believes it’s too early to gauge the effectiveness of the community’s response with the number of variables involved, but she remains optimistic by current indicators.
“We have lived through SARS, H1N1 and other viruses, but this strain of COVID has killed people much quicker than in the past,” she said. “By the time other countries had enough information on how it spread, it was too late. I think it is hard to decide to shut down borders and completely put life at a standstill. Not only are we thinking of the physical well-being of people, but also the financial implications of a stay-at-home order that we are currently seeing. I think there are a lot of people that say we haven’t done enough quickly enough, but I believe we have done what we can with this. The trickier areas to me are the homeless population and those sitting in jail. How do we protect them? And I am not sure how to even answer that question!”
But Main remains confident in St. Louis health systems.
“We have now been dealing with the pandemic for over a month; locally, we are discharging more COVID patients than burying them,” she said. “So, we are doing something right. The doctors and medical teams have a better handle on medications and interventions needed. Watching how quickly BJH has adjusted to everything is comforting. Very quickly they stopped visitors, screened everyone, set up mobile units and prepared for the worst – including purchasing freezer trucks for mass casualty.”
Main advises her fellow Gorloks to adhere to issued guidelines, but also to make sure to turn off the screens and get outdoors for mental health’s sake.
“Don’t stay cooped up inside and risk your mental health – this includes overdosing on Netflix! Be smart by washing your hands after everything. I carry Lysol in my car and spray the steering wheel, door handles and middle counsel after each time I am in my car. I shower after I go out in the public. I drink hot tea and eat healthy food to keep my immunity up. The longer we stay at home now, the quicker this virus is managed. If you decide to wear a mask, educate yourself on how to do so properly. It should cover your nose and fit tightly to your face – and never touch it. I personally believe no one should be wearing gloves in public. Gloves give a false sense of protection – most of the time we touch our purse, phone, clothes, etc. and end up contaminating ourselves anyway – so it’s best to wash your hands.”
However, Main’s biggest piece of advice remains curt: “The best thing we can do is look out for each other and remain kind.”
Allison Blessing, a pediatric nurse wrapping up her last year of classes toward her BSN at Webster, has also been volunteering with St. Louis County Department of Public Health in its response to the outbreak.
“My current instructor, Mary Ann Drake, suggested a great opportunity to volunteer at the DPH, in response to the flood of calls due to the impact COVID-19,” Blessing explained. “I couldn’t be more elated to jump right in and help.”
Blessing has been working as a contact tracing call team member, which includes communicating with persons identified as close contacts to cases of COVID-19 to notify them of potential exposure.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to work alongside some of the brightest minds in the St. Louis area, including fellow nurses, Washington University residents, chief medical officers and DPH staff that have been the lead drive on tracking and preventing the spread of COVID-19,” she said.
Blessing is optimistic about the community’s response.
“Overall, I feel like everyone from business owners, stores, schools, restaurants and churches are all putting their best foot forward and have been making changes within the community to extend help to people in need during this economic rough patch,” she said. “With so many people out of work, most everyone has been finding ways to help one another through these stressful times. We can still practice social distancing while being kind to one another, so continue to check in on your neighbors, and give your grandparents a call because we are all struggling in different ways…”
Blessing says she understands it has been hammered home over the last few weeks, but the best advice is quite simple.
“Continue to follow the CDC’s recommendations, including social distancing, hand washing, cover coughs and sneezes, clean shared surfaces often, and stay home if you or someone you live with is COVID-19-positive or experiencing any symptoms,” she noted. “So, to all my fellow cohorts: Stay safe out there and listen to the CDC’s recommendations.”