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How Nurses Handled the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Hannah Ellis, Aristidas Tankus and Mikhail Hashmi |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Friday, May 7, 2021

Victor Lopez, a lead nurse at Cook County Hospital, was told he would be working directly with coronavirus patients.

It was February 2020.

This hard-hitting news put massive strain on Lopez and his staff. Not only was he constantly putting himself at risk for the virus, his entire work life was transformed. 

“Working in the emergency room was the worst,” he said. “We closed off a section of the ER where everyone was suspected of having COVID. There were not enough isolations and we ran out of room, so it started spreading through the rest of the ER.”

This structural change, paired with the overwhelming nature of the pandemic, has caused a considerable amount of mental and physical distress for many frontline workers such as Lopez. He said that during the height of the pandemic, it was normal for nurses to work 8- to 12-hour-long shifts five days per week. These shifts were often short-staffed. All of this led to feelings of burnout, anxiety and overall mental distress.

A survey from the Nursing Standard shows that nurses feel exhausted and anxious due to the overwhelming nature of working directly with the virus. But most importantly, these nurses surveyed feared that they will be infected and will infect their loved ones with COVID.

Timeline: COVID-19 in Chicago

 Monisha Sharma, ScM, PhD and assistant professor in the global health department at the University of Washington, also confirms the increased mental stress felt by healthcare professionals in her own study

She said, “Healthcare providers report feeling powerless against a virus with no effective treatment and distressed by watching patients die alone. Many are worried about spreading the virus to their loved ones.”

Sadly for Lopez, these fears became a reality. In November 2020, he was infected with COVID-19.

“I was out for four weeks. I came home on a Friday and told my wife that I was going to be really sick and to go live with her dad upstairs. She refused, so she caught it and it spread to her dad, brothers and mom.”

Lopez’s mother-in-law died of COVID-19 on Dec. 1. Despite his best efforts to ensure that he was not contaminating his home, he still caught the virus and it spread to his loved ones. Lopez was scarred by it and he feels guilty.  

Julia Conway, 62, is a survivor of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is married to 64-year-old Kelly Conway, and their 27-year-old son, Collin, lives in San Clemente, Calif. They previously lived in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood before moving to Lake Forest. They later moved to their current home in Lake Bluff. In October 2020, Julia tested positive for the virus. At that time, Collin was going to visit his parents in Old Town.

Julia was in MADO Healthcare in Old Town where Andrea Banaszak, Clinical Director and nurse, tested her positive for the virus. “The results for Mrs. Conway’s coronavirus test came out positive,” said Banaszak. “She was tested negative for the virus multiple times before October 2020. She was exhibiting symptoms at the time she tested positive.” 


“I was shocked when my doctor told me I was tested positive for the virus,” Julia said. “I was wearing a mask because someone caught the virus in the apartment I was living in. I was also social distancing, and yet I had been tested positive for the virus.” Julia had to self-quarantine with her son at the time she tested positive. She said she started exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Kelly and Collin tested negative for COVID.

“I recovered from the symptoms and I was able to move out of my apartment in the Old Town neighborhood with my spouse a few months after I tested positive,” Julia said. “After my son Collin self-quarantined in my apartment for two weeks, he would eventually return to San Clemente.”

Old Town reported a spike in COVID cases in late March. An imminent warning about the increasing numbers of positive COVID-19 testing led to Julia and Kelly’s sudden departure from Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood to Lake Forest, Ill. before they suddenly moved to Lake Bluff.

“Kelly and I feel less exposed to the virus here in Lake Bluff than we did back in Old Town,” Julia said. “We’re hoping we don’t have to worry about the rising COVID cases in the city. But we are optimistic about things going back to normal after the pandemic. We’re hoping mostly everyone in the city is safely vaccinated and immune from the coronavirus.”

This might be a good place for a mapping graphic

In May 2020, Diana Elmatari was tasked with transporting COVID-19 patients in and out of UChicago Ingalls Memorial Hospital. She was in close contact with COVID-19 patients throughout her shifts, which lasted seven to eight hours. During that time there were over 1,200 cases everyday in Chicago. 

“When i had first started working there, there were over 80 covid patients in the hospital,” Elmatari said. “Each shift I was transporting over 15 covid patients, without proper protection.”

She said that the hospital was short on PPE and equipment for its employees. This put a lot of them at risk of contracting COVID-19 and added to the mental distress for many workers on the frontline, such as Elmatari. 

“For patient transportation, we were not provided with KN95 masks” she said. “All we had were surgical masks, the only people who were given the KN95 masks were nurses and doctors.”

Elmatari said she feared for her family’s safety, especially since she was exposed to the virus at the hospital. 

“I had to get out of my house, since my family is immunocompromised,” she said. “The entire hospital was hit hard, I had a lot of older co-workers with families who had gotten COVID.” 

“It’s something that luckily I got away with, some of my other co-workers weren’t so lucky.”   

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