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Jones-Harrison infection preventionist: ‘I have tallied the staff who’ve agreed to be vaccinated in the mid-50% range’

January 7, 2021

This community reporting project documents the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Barb Joyce, infection preventionist, Jones-Harrison senior living

Tomorrow we have our pharmacy coming out and we’re going to be vaccinated. Everyone has been invited. All of our staff, our residents and our vendors — meaning hospice services, podiatry, mental health services, nurse practitioners, lab techs, X-ray techs. We’re also vaccinating volunteers who haven’t been here for a long time who want to come back. And we’re vaccinating essential caretakers — the designated family members who do grocery shopping or laundry or change bed linens. We’ll give out 300 to 350 vaccinations in total.

We have worked hard to educate the staff on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine in terms of data and not in terms of social media conspiracy theories.

I have tallied the staff who’ve agreed to be vaccinated in the mid-50% range. Usually for a flu vaccination, I can get into the 80% range. This time is different for a number of reasons. It’s a brand new vaccine. Some of our staff are in child-bearing or breastfeeding status and are weighing pros and cons carefully. And, also, we’ve had 20 of our roughly 250 employees test positive in the past two months, and they may be thinking, “Why get the vaccine now when I have immunity?” However, the answer is that unless you get a quantitative laboratory test, you really don’t know how your immune system responded and a single lab test can’t tell you definitively that you’re immune to the germ. If two weeks have passed by, officials recommend you get vaccinated. It won’t hurt you and it may help you.

Residents will be vaccinated at higher rates than staff, but some families have declined the vaccine and some have asked for antibody testing first. Education is a process.

For me, it is an easy decision to get the vaccine. I know it’s going to help society, and I feel that is our calling in this world. There’s a bold and in-your-face selfishness that’s come about: “I don’t have to do it and I don’t want to do it and you can’t make me do it.” I choose not to live in a world like that. To get a vaccine in this world of ugly is to love thy neighbor. That’s what my faith directs me to do. If I do this for my neighbor, I’m hoping my neighbor is going to do this for their neighbor.

Watching the coup yesterday, I felt mixed, like: How is this even possible? But at the same time, it felt like the end. It felt like we were turning the page. The vaccine — we’re turning the page. The political arena — we’re turning the page. The people have spoken, democracy wins and we can get back to creating a country we can feel proud about. I hope we’ve reached the bottom of our bucket and things can only get better.

I know vaccinations are going to make a difference, even if not everyone accepts them. I’m feeling hope instead of despair. I’m sleeping better knowing there is action — that the scientists came up with something to change where we’re at, because this is no way to live.

We rode out the storm at Jones-Harrison this holiday season as infection percentages rose in the state. We had a handful of residents test positive over the last couple months, but fortunately they were mild cases and they’re now back in their rooms.

We haven’t had a resident die from COVID since back in August. Some nursing homes that didn’t have that trial by fire in the beginning are being hit hard now. We may have it figured out now. This time, even though people were getting sick and we were doing all that work, we were ahead of the numbers. The staff knew what to do and didn’t need constant reminders. We had a system that seemed to work.

But some of our staff were pretty sick. In November, we had to do twice weekly testing, but lab results were delayed by up to a week and it felt like spitting in the wind. We switched to a lab in Utah that got us results within 48 to 72 hours and helped us get things under control. There was a lot of quarantining because of exposure over the holidays. I had to do a lot of screening, contact tracing, checking timelines to see when staff were ready to come back to work. Now that we’re at the tail end of this latest storm, I feel lucky that no one was severely harmed.

Staffing has been a struggle. Health care workers have also been leaving the profession during the pandemic. A lot of nurses have retired and nursing schools were kind of put on hold. There came a time last month when we didn’t have enough staff to keep approving travel during the holiday season. We have a responsibility to those we’re caring for. Some staff members felt they needed to travel to see their families in December — they thought that was the right thing to do — and ended up leaving our family. It was rough, it was rough.

In mid-December we started hiring again and rebuilding our family. It’s difficult to orient somebody during these times, but we’re muddling through and gaining momentum. We had no choice, we had to start this process even though we were saturated with other stuff because if we didn’t, it was just going to get worse.

Now that everyone needs workers, we’re all competing for these employees. Wages have not gone up during the pandemic. Should they? Yes. But they haven’t, even though we’re doing work that’s very clinical, similar to a stepped down hospital. The nurses who work the COVID unit still get hazard pay but other nurses at Jones-Harrison no longer do. At the beginning, hazard pay was doled out because we didn’t want everyone to bail. We were going into the unknown. We now know how to work with this germ, but we’re practicing at a higher level, with more risk, and we have not seen a financial bump. Society should be acknowledging this profession for what it has done and for what it continues to do.

In December, I hit crisis personally. My blood pressure was skyrocketing and I was crawling out of my skin. It was getting worse and worse and building and building and when we started going into the storm, I could feel it.

Everyone has a titch of obsessiveness — mine manifests in a huge sense of wanting to do things right, which made me a great person for doing this job. But I took on too much of a responsibility for the “what if?” I was afraid of judgment. I was worried that someone was going to write up everything that’s happened as the worst year in Jones-Harrison’s 125 years of existence. I didn’t know how I would react if a health care worker died. I was in this heightened state where I felt I would be a failure. I didn’t know if I could survive if that was my legacy. But that was my ego spinning out of control.

Now I’m being managed. I’m on blood pressure medication and an anti-anxiety. I’m able to enjoy life again, and I’m back to my normal self. I know I’m just a person doing my job. I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities and that’s all I can do. I’m in a better place now.

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