At the center of the COVID-19 pandemic are health care professionals tasked not only with treating the ill but also ensuring the virus and its tensions do not spread to themselves or others.

Increasingly, health care workers are being diagnosed with COVID-19. Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink has called Fairbanks a state hotspot for the virus, with two clusters in the area. One of those clusters is at Denali Center, a long-term care facility where patients and staff have tested positive in recent days.

Dr. Mishelle Nace, medical director of the pediatric department at Tanana Valley Clinic, said health care workers are having to adapt in ways where they didn’t have to before.

“Today, with the overarching concern of COVID there, it changes everything,” she said.

Whether it’s how they give medicine, advice they give to patients or who they get to see, COVID-19 is over every decision and step that they take, Nace said.

Dr. Alisa Alexander, acting medical director of Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, believes health care providers constantly think about contracting the disease.

“We see all the news reports of health care providers that are at increased risk of getting infected,” she said.

Alexander said the center has as much as possible made sure employees use personal protective equipment and that people are trained well.

Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center employs around 320 people, according to Alexander, but with people working from home, giving medical waivers and some services being reduced, they’re down to about 140 in the clinic.

She said she thinks the staff has done well at being flexible and as resilient as possible.

“We’re trying to adjust to the situation as quickly as we can and then also making sure we can communicate with all branches of our facility as quickly as we can as well,” Alexander said.

The health center also works with health aides in villages and clinics in rural areas.

For health aides working in villages, Alexander noted they are often the lone provider in the area and they sometimes have to make house calls in full personal protective equipment.

“I just consider them really brave for doing what they’re doing and just being the sole provider out there,” she said, “and they’re ready to do whatever they can for our patients in the villages and I just think they’re doing a really good job.”


In the workplace

The pandemic has had its impact on the workplace atmosphere as well.

“I think it elevates the stressors, but I think it also reinforces, I think, the background and training a lot of us have done to make us resilient and resourceful and work as a team,” Alexander said, adding that there are things learned in training that providers fall back on in stressful times.

She said people in the health care community are pulling together to support each other and address these stressors.

In terms of morale, Alexander said it gets a little lower, but changing clinical duties and giving people time off and time to recuperate helps. People at the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center are committed to serving patients and the community, she said, so once they have time to rest and pull themselves out of that environment, she finds they’re keen to come back.

“So I think it fluctuates downstairs in our clinical areas,” she said.

Tanana Valley Clinic sees the effects on employees as well.

“It affects the people in the pediatric department. It affects everyone,” Nace said.

In her department, employees who are also parents are worried about how to take care of themselves and their kids.

“They’re worried about child care and how do they get their children taken care of if they are one of those essential workers that needs to come in?” she said.

In the past, some caretakers have been grandparents, according to Nace, but now people wonder how they can take care of a child and not expose them to COVID-19. In health care, people also worry about their families, both not seeing them as much and being stressed about potentially spreading the virus.

“I think on top of that, as things get more concerning and more into it, is health care workers can experience what’s called secondary trauma, and that’s where you are there and witnessing and helping someone else through their trauma,” Nace said, adding that the current situation has the potential to affect a lot of health care workers.

Adjusting to the situation as it changes requires flexibility and resilience, according to Nace.

Nace said she thinks a powerful ally for health care workers are those who work around them and that the mental health of those workers benefits when they are able to reach out to support, understand, and grant grace to each other.


Help for the helpers

Foundation Health Partners employees who are overwhelmed by current events have a couple of options available to them.

An employee assistance program is available and a 24/7 hotline exists for employees to call to talk about work, financial situations, and family issues, according to Nicole Welch, chief human resources officer.

“We are currently also in the process of setting up some in-person employee assistance through our chaplain here at the hospital,” she said.

Welch also noted that having a senior leadership team that supports the staff and having a clear communication and communication channels to keep staff up to date on things that impact them is important.

While she gets the sense that morale is good, she added that people are anxious and nervous, waiting to see what is to come, and that with that comes a lot of concerns.

However, Welch said they’ve had a huge outpouring of support in donations, lunch deliveries, gift cards for staff. She echoed Nace’s sentiment of giving people grace.

“I think we’re all learning a whole different level of grace because we all deal with anxiety differently, and some of us can roll, some of us can’t roll,” she said, “and trying to have the grace to meet people where they are is really where I think we’re trying to adapt as an organization.”

At the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, Alexander said the Employee Health Department went from a registered nurse to four providers and at least one nurse.

“So our Employee Health has basically quadrupled in a short period of time,” she said.

They have an employee assistance program of their own as well. Employees who are overwhelmed can also be excused from clinical duties given time to regroup.

“Right now a lot of that is just kind of watching for those kinds of softer signs that people are feeling overwhelmed or stressed,” she said.

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