SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. (AP) – No one saw coming what 2020 had in store. Just because the entire year has been full of uncertainties and question marks didn’t mean there wasn’t still a job to do, and in fact, 2020 increased the duties of some jobs 100-fold, especially for the nurse.

Seemingly overnight, clinics went from handling walk-in appointments with ease to going through an excessive screening process for every visitor or patient who arrived at their doors. Medical professionals gear up in masks, gloves and other protective gear daily as they attempt to treat patients with COVID-19 or other ailments.

“(We’ve) just (been) taking the precautions that we probably already should have been taking anyway, but we just kind of didn’t necessarily think about it,” Laura Garcia, team-based care manager and registered nurse at Community Health Center (CAPWN) in Gering, said. “You know, think about the proximity that I am next to my coworkers during flu season … some of our staff would wear masks during flu and cold season leading up to this.”

Now it’s normal for everyone at the center – staff and patients – to don a mask at all times.

Nikki LeDroit, a registered nurse and Community Health Center’s immunization program manager and infection control program manager, said, “Now you start to feel like you’re naked without it.”

LeDroit told the Scottsbluff Star-Herald one of the biggest changes in her opinion is the increased use of telehealth, and it was just another day in the office when she sees the lab techs suit up in PPE every few minutes to go do more COVID-19 testing. Garcia said it all became the new normal.

“(It’s) just balancing our new normal, I guess. I really hate that word, I think, after this year,” Garcia said. “But I think (it’s) just balancing our new normal.”

It’s a new normal that all nurses had to adapt to quickly because the need for health care didn’t stop just because everyone was locked up at home.

Jill Morris, who is a nurse with Community Health Center’s behavioral health department, said, “Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not out there. And I think it’s been hard on patients, you know, (being) quarantined and not being able to go out.

“And, of course, we work with mental health – so depressed people – so that doesn’t help, you know, when they’re quarantined, and they have to be isolated more, because we try to not promote that.”

Morris revealed that nurses in all different health areas are having their work cut out for them, as depression and anxiety numbers soared across the nation during the pandemic. According to the CDC, the prevalence of anxiety disorder symptoms increased from 8.1% in the second quarter of 2019 to 25.5% in June 2020, and depression symptoms increased from 6.5% to 24.3% in the same time period.

Morris said it has been a trying year full of challenges, and the other nurses shared her sentiment. They all said that 2020 has stretched them in ways they wouldn’t have ever imagined before, and the worst of it occurred in the fall when the Panhandle saw its huge surge.

LeDroit said that’s when things really turned to chaos.

“Once we started to get into the red and we started having 500 and some new positive cases every three-four days, that’s when it was like ‘Holy cow,’” she said. “For our agency, that’s when things started getting crazy.”

And now, as vaccines have begun rolling in, LeDroit and other medical professionals are staying busy with yet another task. The lines for those getting vaccinated seems to be almost as long as the lines for those who needed testing. LeDroit barely had time to schedule her interview with the Star-Herald because as she spoke, people continued lining up for their vaccinations.

She said the hardest part about this new task the nurses have is trying to follow state and national guidelines for prioritizing who gets the vaccine when.

“Everybody is working their hardest to make this whole effort very organized and to get in the high-risk people and to prioritize who gets the vaccine first,” she said. “It’s just the ever-changing nature of it all. I’m just trying to get vaccine in people’s arms. That’s the important thing, and it’s tough because, yeah, you do need to prioritize, but then at the same time, it doesn’t always fall into place that way.”

Looking ahead to 2021, the three nurses are just glad to have made it this far and hope for better things to come while keeping in mind what 2020 has taught them.

“It’s been a real strain, and people have really raised to the occasion, I would say,” Morris said. “And I’m proud that … we’ve made it through 2020.”

LeDroit listed her biggest takeaways from 2020: “The first thing that comes to mind is don’t take anything for granted. Anything can happen at any time. You know, the pandemic wasn’t here, and then all of a sudden, it’s here, and we’re living life so differently.

“And then on top of that, don’t take anyone for granted … I personally know a couple of people who aren’t here anymore, (and) it was surprising to me. And so, it really started to hit home.”

Garcia echoed the words LeDroit said earlier on Thursday to the immunization team after a long day of vaccinations.

“…We were vaccinating our first few employees. And, you know, she said, ‘We are making history today. We are giving the first few doses of vaccine to our patients, to our colleagues, and, you know, this is important stuff that we’re doing.’

“And I completely agree with her. We are doing important things here, for sure,” Garcia said. “The most rewarding (thing) for me is just seeing that light in people’s eyes with the services that we’re providing.”

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