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A growing number of nurses and other first responders are living in self- isolation, cut off from the support and affection of their loved ones during the pandemic. To protect their families from the virus, many healthcare providers have been sleeping in basements, campers, hotel rooms, backyard tents, and even in their cars after their shifts instead of returning to the comforts of home. Others, who have no choice but to go home, go through meticulous self-decontamination procedures, stripping off their work clothes in the garage and taking long showers before allowing themselves to have any contact with family—and even those staying at home often use a designated bathroom and sleep in separate bedrooms.

One NP in Missouri, who has an asthmatic child and immunocompromised husband, “moved out of her home completely and into her co-worker’s apartment, leaving behind her husband, their two children and her mother-in-law,” according to NBC News. And in mid-March, anesthesiologist Michelle Au, who has been sleeping in the basement of her family home, told the Guardian, “There is a sizable portion of people who have already started self-isolating. They have started sleeping in separate bedrooms, separate bathrooms.” Asked when she had last seen her parents, one ED nurse told the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t know, oh my, God, I can’t even remember.”

By isolating themselves from family and friends, healthcare providers on the front lines of COVID-19 find themselves working without one of the key sources of emotional support that normally helps protect them from burnout. As psychiatrist Judith Gold writes in Stat News, “It is no wonder that the preliminary research on coronavirus in China showcases high rates of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress, which are much higher in nurses, women, and those on the front line.”

What can be done to help nurses and other healthcare providers who are struggling with anxiety, depression, and isolation from the people they love? While the pandemic lasts, experts are seeking ways to maintain the resilience of clinicians on the front lines as they carry on amid the health risks and the physical and emotional wear and tear. The World Health Organization (WHO), in their statement on mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, has issued particular recommendations to hospital managers at this time:

  • Ensure that good quality communication and accurate information updates are provided to all staff.
  • Rotate workers from higher-stress to lower-stress functions. Partner inexperienced workers with their more experienced colleagues. The buddy system helps to provide support, monitor stress and reinforce safety procedures.
  • Ensure that outreach personnel enter the community in pairs.Initiate, encourage and monitor work breaks.
  • Implement flexible schedules for workers who are directly impacted or have a family member affected by a stressful event.
  • Ensure that you build in time for colleagues to provide social support to each other.

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Koren Thomas
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