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"I knew this was going to be an issue." The nurse describes life within the early days of the pandemic

I am a medical-surgical nurse in an acute ward. I am also an oncology nurse. I treat a lot of lymphomas and leukemias, the types of cancer that require people to be hospitalized for about a week while they are being treated.

I remember the last time I was with a lot of people: January 27th. This date is only ringing in my ear, in my head. Someone asked me, "What do you think about this coronavirus?" Because I tend to live on the side of impending doom, I said, "Well, it could be really bad." But then I thought: Maybe I'm dramatic. So I started watching LA County's COVID-7pm, a Department of Health website that records coronavirus infections and deaths. I remember when we had 20 cases and now we've exceeded 275,000.

In mid-February, I knew this was going to be a problem. My friend was celebrating his 50th birthday from March 3rd to 5th, and we all went to Minnesota. I was really scared of leaving. The pandemic was declared the following Thursday. I remember hugging a friend and almost crying. I thought, This is the last time I'll hug someone. I still remember that last hug. I don't think I've hugged anyone since then.

Before strict coronavirus isolation guidelines were put in place at my hospital, I was exposed to a coronavirus positive patient in April 2020. I was the head nurse that day and had to help another nurse with a bloody 90 minute procedure. This patient had HIV, so I was wearing double gloves and a face shield.

The next day I was about to go for a walk when I received a call from the hospital. They told me I had been exposed to a patient who was positive for COVID-19, but they told me I could still work as long as I wasn't symptomatic.

I was shocked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have advised that you should be quarantined for 14 days after exposure. I had this moment when I felt really abandoned and struggled to figure out what was right. I immediately felt that I would be alone in it. That's the biggest scary part of this virus: the isolation of being sick and being alone.

I remember another nurse who said to me, “Just say goodbye. Maybe you can come back anytime. “I said,“ What? Are you going to kick me out now? Because this calling to be a nurse is really true. I want to be there. "I was confused, upset, emotional. I didn't know what to do.

At this point, tests were not yet available. I took a day off, took advantage of my sick leave, hired all of my organizer friends and finally found a clinic. I drove for an hour and a half. I asked them to test me. They said, "Fine, but don't tell your friends because we're not going to test them."

Then other organizer friends found an ear, nose and throat doctor in my hospital who said, "We're testing you, don't worry. Give our number to every nurse in the hospital." I gave the number to my manager and anyone else who was exposed. Anyone could get tested.

I went to my organizational community for help because I understood that this was a political issue. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the CDC and other countries tried to give us access to tests. But with Trump, the United States declined to help and decided to run its own tests. This ultimately put us far behind the ability to isolate or quarantine people. People should still be tested, but contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine essentially only work at the beginning of an outbreak. We are beyond that now.

At the beginning of COVID-19 it was really messy; We didn't have tight systems. We were fined for wearing masks – and nurses showed up with N95s and face shields. We were very limited in what personal protective equipment (PPE) we could have; we had to prove we needed them. And we are an oncology department – we have to protect our patients who are weakened or have no immune system!

Now we are screening every patient who is hospitalized for COVID-19. But for a few months there didn't seem to be any procedures to protect us. I think my first experiences changed the guidelines.

However, in late June I found that I had been exposed twice since the first time. Some of my patients had originally tested negative but had symptoms of COVID-19 – fever, cough, fast heart rate, etc. – and we decided to test them again. They had "converted" – now they have tested positive. I was also asked to be part of a COVID-19 unit and worked there for six weeks. Regardless of whether you are in a COVID-19 or a non-COVID-19 device, there is always a risk of exposure.

When you work in a hospital like mine, you keep finding that you are underfunded, understaffed, and underserved. They realize that health and wellness issues are not well understood – that social and political conditions cause poverty and disease. That made me want to become an organizer. I began to see state violence maintain the condition of the disease.

For example, Los Angeles completely left the Skid Row community during COVID-19. There is no food or shelter or clean water to wash your hands. In response, organizations like the Los Angeles Community Action Network have launched mutual aid programs that not only provide healthy food but also set up hand-washing facilities across the community. The city gave up, but we didn't!

I've been involved in the protests and riots against police brutality in Los Angeles, and I'm not the only one. Some doctors and managers at my hospital showed up which is great. I don't feel alone, I feel proud. I was really happy to see on every flyer: "Mask up!" But I've also seen these rallies with people just standing there and screaming. I like: "Just march! Please move! Move through the air, open it, take to the street. Just spread it out, spread it out."

People are ready to risk their lives, and not just against the police. They are shot with rubber bullets and gassed tearfully and beaten with batons. You are ready to risk your health. It's like, "I may get a virus that can kill me." And that's amazing, because despite all the adversities, we sit there. The momentum is so strong right now. We are ready to do everything for freedom now.

In the context of COVID-19 and the uprising, we need to be clear that this rebellion is really about structural racism. It's about how the black community has been disenfranchised from health care, housing, schools and the countryside, and then controlled, contained and criminalized by the police. We will not leave this pandemic alive and save the lives of black people if these things are not addressed.

That is why black people are dying disproportionately from COVID-19 – because everything you hear is about "COVID positive, COVID negative". None of this is about the structural problems that cause high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart failure – all of those things that make you up susceptible to die from COVID-19. Structural racism kills black people alongside the police.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I saw nurses fall like flies – go on vacation, lose weight. Now we are re-adapting. I miss being able to hug my nurse friends because we need that camaraderie. I miss not being afraid to touch the patient, a kind of closeness that one could have without fear.

The job is tough. It was a crisis; it was groundbreaking. It was a job that made you cry. But I appreciate how strong everyone is.

Virginia Eubanks is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Albany, SUNY, and co-editor of the Digital Welfare State Project currently being incubated at the Voice of Witness Story Lab.

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