Advocate Aurora chief nursing officer on the COVID-19 fight

Last updated on April 30th, 2020 at 10:44 am

Mary Beth Kingston
Mary Beth Kingston

Advocate Aurora Health’s Wisconsin facilities reported having 719 active COVID-19 cases, including 90 hospitalized patients, and 49 fatalities, as of April 23.

In a recent interview with BizTimes Milwaukee, Mary Beth Kingston, the health system’s chief nursing officer, discussed what the experience of fighting the pandemic has been like for nurses and other health care staff, how the system is responding to employee needs and how she expects the coronavirus will affect the future of nursing.

BizTimes: What’s it like to be on the frontline as a nurse over the past month?

Kingston: “It’s been amazing to see how people have stepped up. We have a lot of communication, which people are finding very helpful, but we adjust and we change. We’re following CDC and CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) guidelines, so we might say, ‘Here’s how we’re approaching a situation today,’ and that might change a little tomorrow. So they have to be extremely flexible. We have in most of our sites COVID-designated units … The difficulty there, the part that’s different, is the patients are all in isolation. Either they have been diagnosed with COVID or they are currently being tested to see if they’re COVID positive. So you’re working all day with gowns and masks – that adds another element that’s not always in your care.”

BizTimes: What support is in place for health care workers right now?

Kingston: We have respite or naps rooms, quiet spaces, at all of our sites where people can go, take a break, rest their eyes and just get away from the work situation. We have virtual support groups two to three times a day, for our leaders and frontline workers … sometimes a group will request a support group to discuss what they’re experiencing. We have two virtual drop-in meditation sessions (daily). They’re only 10 minutes long and one is on the night shift. People can just dial into that if need be.”

“We have a family care stipend … We provide $25 a day for family care. We’ve worked with all our hotels, so if someone is working and needs to come back the next day and they have to drive a distance, they can stay at a hotel, and it’s a discounted rate, but we reimburse the employee.

“Don’t ever underestimate the importance of the amount of support we’ve seen in terms of lifting the spirits of frontline caregivers. The signs, the drive-thrus, all of that raises everyone’s spirit.” 

BizTimes: What do you think the long-term impact on health care workers’ mental health will be?

Kingston: “I think the support systems are helping mitigate that but I don’t think we can underestimate the impact of it, particularly if you’ve been in a unit where we’ve experienced a significant amount of fatalities and loss of life. Again, we have support for that now, but I think people are working very hard … There eventually will be a decrease in cases but we’ll still see COVID in our communities and I think our team members are going to continue to need support beyond this acute phase.” 

BizTimes: Will this experience have a long-term impact on nursing?

Kingston: “I think one is our ability to mobilize and redeploy people and do that very successfully. Our nursing education and professional development teams (have identified) individuals from areas where we’re seeing less volume – for example, maybe at the time it would be our surgical areas or ambulatory areas – and work with people to say, ‘OK What is your experience before your current job? What’s your current job? And what could you assist with?’ We’ve been able to redeploy people and have had great feedback about that.

“The other thing is screening of folks. I don’t know how that will move into the future but I can imagine we’ll continue to be checking temperatures and those types of things as people are coming into the building and that’s certainly not something we did before. 

BizTimes: Will it accelerate the use of telehealth in the future?

Kingston: “(We’re using) technology to augment what we typically do. For example, we have virtual visits. Also, if someone is at the end of life, we have virtual vigils. We’ve trained volunteers so that many, many family members can be there virtually with someone at the end of life. So it’s shown us we can do some things differently. The use of telehealth, video visits, phone calls – all of that has greatly, greatly increased. And I think both patients and our physicians and advanced care providers, I think they’ve gained a renewed sense of comfort with using technology. I think that will probably continue to increase in the future.” 

BizTimes: How do you think COVID will affect future nurse recruitment? 

Kingston: “It’s interesting because, on the one hand, you might think people will be concerned and won’t want to go into the field … but I do think the heightened focus on what nurses do, and the care they provide and the flexibility and the commitment, I think we’re going to see an increase in people wanting to go into nursing. We’ve hired students on an as-needed basis and the response was tremendous. Folks came in and said, ‘Let us know what we need to do and we’re here.’”

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