In only a few months, the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has turned the world upside down. Pablo Vasquez, 40, is the nurse leader for the new COVID-19 treatment unit at the Houston Methodist Continuing Care Hospital in Katy. He and his colleagues have been learning more about the disease and how to accommodate the growing number of COVID-19 patients.
“As a nurse leader, I have focused on analyzing how many staff members are required and what skills they need to work on the unit. I have been developing processes for admission and discharge, coordinating with our transfer centers to move patients to our unit, and many other things,” says Vasquez of his new responsibilities.
Vasquez, who is gay, says that in the fourth week of dealing with the virus, the team he manages is starting to get into a regular cadence—in spite of the long hours and an increase in COVID-19 patients. Accommodating an expected spike in patients involves planning, which is where Vasquez comes in.
“We have seen an increase of COVID-19 patient volume across all hospitals at the same time. Some hospitals have decreased their overall patient census because many elective procedures have been postponed. Beds that might be typically occupied with these patients are now vacant, which has allowed the hospitals to reallocate resources to respond to the increase in COVID-19 patients,” he says.
Vasquez is an important part of a larger team that is trying to ensure that the healthcare professionals have everything they need, including Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE—a term most people outside of the healthcare system were unfamiliar with before COVID-19.
“Houston Methodist has a dedicated team working collaboratively with other hospital systems in the city to coordinate PPE guidelines and supply chains to meet the needs of our staff. In addition, we are tapping into the brainpower of students, researchers, and engineers through the Houston Methodist Research Institute to develop alternative sources of PPE. [They are working on] reprocessing masks, testing materials for reusable gowns, and producing alternative enclosures for staff to use, such as the plexi-box [isolation pods],” says Vasquez.
The Houston Methodist Hospital system has been working on getting more hospital volunteers to temporarily transfer to the COVID-19 unit in Katy as they expand bed capacity.
Professionals on the front lines are also being impacted by personal issues such as childcare needs and financial stress. Since the prolonged shutdown and political firestorm directly impacts their lives, they are relying more on each other, as well as on other hospital systems, to bridge the gaps.
Vasquez says that the patients coming in with COVID-19 issues have ranged in age from their late 20s to their 90s. Some are immuno-compromised from a pre-existing condition, and others were completely healthy before being infected. The early understanding that young, healthy people were relatively safe from developing serious conditions has been disproven over the course of the pandemic. Although elderly and health-compromised people may be at higher risk for complications, that does not mean there is little risk for others.
“We know more about what to look for to hopefully prevent patients from needing to be ventilator-dependent. Also, different long-term planning needs are emerging for nursing-home patients. We have been coordinating with [nursing homes] to safely return stabilized patients back into their communities while minimizing the risk of infecting others,” says Vasquez.
Vasquez’s advice for those who have remained healthy is the same as many of the other guidelines that are out there: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask outside, social distance, and most importantly, stay home.
“The precautions the LGBTQ community should take are really no different. However, [because] the LGBTQ community is very social, I know it’s hard to stay home and not invite groups of friends over for dinner or a game night. But we all need to understand that even small gatherings can put people at risk of COVID-19.
“So it’s important that we get creative. Just as we are having virtual office meetings, we can have virtual happy hours or parties. I recently had a friend that celebrated her birthday using group video chat. She wanted to have pizza, so everyone ordered or made their own pizza and celebrated together. We are learning that the workplace strategies to stay connected can easily be implemented in our personal lives,” Vasquez notes.
Finally, for those who may be HIV-positive, there is an additional concern for COVID-19.
“People who are HIV-positive should take the same precautions recommended for the general public. Your HIV care provider will let you know if your immune system may be at greater risk of being compromised, and may recommend additional infection-prevention measures to follow during this time. Lastly, I would recommend those who are HIV-positive contact their health provider if they experience any COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever and cough, to get specific guidance on care or treatment that may be needed,” says Vasquez.
As the days roll on, professionals like Vasquez are helping to mitigate the damage of COVID-19 as best they can. And while he stays at work, the best thing we can do to help him is to stay at home.
This article appears in the May 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.