Nurse leadership is vital to a robust response to a major health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, according to faculty, students and an alumna from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Nursing who presented during a virtual symposium June 25 titled “Leading Amidst Crisis: Nursing through a Pandemic.”
Alisa Haushalter, DNP, RN, director of the Shelby County Health Department, noted that 2020, designated as the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, “Was not what we expected. But I challenge everyone to consider not only the role of nurses, but the role of public health nurses, in creating healthier communities for all and how we can really share our stories and elevate our voices through the practice we have exhibited relative to COVID-19.”
Dr. Haushalter, who earned her doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree at the UTHSC College of Nursing, offered a keynote presentation on the role of public health in the pandemic. UTHSC nursing instructor Terri Stewart, MSN, RN, shared the integral role of nursing in developing the alternate care facility in Memphis. Two of the college’s current DNP students told their stories of serving 21 days straight in New York City at the height of the pandemic, and Dr. Diana Dedmon, director of clinical affairs for the college, described the volunteer efforts of faculty and students to ensure COVID-19 testing in the community.
As a public health leader, one of Dr. Haushalter’s primary responsibilities is to develop a data-driven public health response strategy to reduce the spread of the infectious disease. She noted that the focus of the local COVID-19 task force has moved from a “sprint” early in the pandemic, to “marathon mode.”
“Our focus is getting children back to school in the fall, attempting to get people back to work, and reducing the impact on vulnerable populations,” she said. Communities of color are counted among those vulnerable populations.
“We know that COVID-19 has impacted communities of color significantly,” Dr. Haushalter said. “With that being brought to the forefront during COVID, and with issues arising out of police brutality and social movements, protests that have occurred, we have worked with the county commission and a resolution was passed issuing approval that racism is a considered a pandemic. This is an outgrowth of a conversation we had related to disparities, and it was an opportune time to pass another policy that allows us to address root causes in our community.”
DNP student Kristin Fitchpatric, BSN, also addressed the impact of racism in the pandemic during her presentation by urging listeners to explore their own implicit biases and how it affects patient care. “When you value the people that you treat, they are more likely to receive the exceptional care they deserve,” she said.
Fitchpatric said her experience, working 21, 12-hour days in a row at a hospital in the Bronx caring for critically ill patients, showed her even more clearly the significant role nurses play in caregiving.
“If a patient asks you to hold their hand for a second, you do it. It may be the last hand that they hold,” she said. “If they ask to talk to their family, you put your phone in a biohazard bag, take it into the room and let them talk to their family.”
Stewart’s role in planning and guiding development of the alternate care facility also reinforced the vital role nurses play in patient care, she said.
As chief nursing officer of the facility created to handle a possible surge of COVID-19 patients, Stewart was asked to make decisions including the type of respiratory equipment needed, the design of the patient care units, staffing ratios and patient care documentation. One example of her input was a request for iPads so that COVID-19 patients, who are not allowed to have visitors, could communicate with their families.
“I can’t stress enough that the role of nursing is critical in development and implementation of an alternate care site,” Stewart said. “Almost every process you put in place affects the patient and the nurse. Don’t ever underestimate the role of the nurse in a situation like this.”
Students and faculty from the college also have been involved in free COVID-19 testing in the community through volunteering with organizations such as Christ Community Health Services. Dr. Dedmon described their work for the symposium.
“Developing relationships with community partners has been a great joy during this time,” she said, adding that 77 students and faculty had provided 760 volunteer hours so far. Volunteering was not required. “This developed quite a passion in many of our students for service.”
The symposium presenters agreed that collaboration is vital when communities are in crisis. When asked to offer a word of hope for the current times, Dr. Haushalter replied commitment and collaboration, but also strength and resiliency.
“Communities can overcome significant challenges through collaboration and partnerships. Through exercising strength through that, they come out better on the other side,” she said. “Historically by coming together we can make a difference, and nurses have always done that.”
A recording of the symposium is available on the event website.