As National Nurses Week concludes, those in the profession in New Jersey face an ongoing battle against an ongoing pandemic and all of its effects, physical, mental, and professional.

Nursing was a stressful job before COVID-19 came along, but the coronavirus made that stress more consistent and ratcheted it up to unhealthy levels, according to Sue Salmond, director of the newly-formed New Jersey Nursing and Emotional Well-Being Institute and executive vice dean at Rutgers University School of Nursing.

Confusion and uncertainty ruled the early days of the crisis, Salmond said, as these front-line healthcare workers often went without adequate personal protective equipment and had to devise ways to safely interact with patients and their own loved ones alike.

"Many of our nurses did not go home for a good period of time, and stayed in hotels," Salmond said. "Many went home and developed rituals as to how to get out of their work gear into showers, and protect their family."

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With visitation rights greatly restricted at that time, nurses often used their own phones to connect patients with family members.

And even when hospitals bought tablets for that purpose, nurses still shouldered the responsibility of making sure patients did not die alone. Those deaths were happening faster than anyone could have anticipated.

"The number of patients dying was probably more than people had ever, maybe in a month more than people had seen in a career," Salmond said.

The pressure of having to rethink how to go about their jobs, with the traditional ways of doing things perhaps not feasible in a pandemic, has been exhausting for nurses, according to Salmond.

"Perhaps most dominant is fatigue injury among nurses," she said. "The wear and tear due to just everyday stressors, without sufficient rest and recovery, has been huge."

Salmond cited studies claiming that about 75% of nurses say they are more stressed than ever before, and 45% to 70% admit some level of exhaustion or burnout.

Those numbers have been exacerbated by a backlash that began after the initial wave of COVID, when the front-line heroes of the pandemic's first few months became targets for continuing to practice precautions in both their professional and personal lives.

The reason behind that seems to be that most people are tired of COVID at this point, Salmond said. But what they may not realize is that nurses are too.

"Nurses tell lots of stories of being in stores, and people isolating from them or not wanting them to be there," she said.

NJ-NEW is touting a package of programs and initiatives it is supporting to provide help and resources for nurses both in the immediate term and for the years ahead, and Salmond is discussing those in detail with New Jersey 101.5 for the second part of this story, coming Friday.

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