At the end of February, as reports of the first U.S. COVID-19 cases at Life Care Center in Kirkland began to spread across media outlets across the country, Julia Barcott and her fellow nurses in Yakima County knew it was just a matter of time until the coronavirus reached their front doors.
“I don’t normally see fear in nurses,” Julia recalls. “But there seemed be a sense of dread among us about what was coming and the lack of information we had at the time.”
Unfortunately, their fears soon became reality. In the beginning of May, Yakima County had the highest COVID-19 infection rate of any county on the U.S. West Coast — a sobering statistic that was primarily the result of a significant number of cases in several long-term care facilities, and due to the large number of food production and agricultural workers deemed essential in the county.
As a per diem registered nurse at Astria Toppenish Hospital, Julia was on the front lines of the crisis delivering direct care to the most critical patients — many of them Latino and members of Indigenous populations. Recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that members of underrepresented racial/ethnic groups are disproportionally affected by COVID-19 in hotspot counties, including being more likely to become infected with COVID-19, experience more severe symptoms, require hospitalization and have a higher risk of death from the virus.
Julia attributes the surge in cases in Yakima County to lack of access to preventative care, high poverty rates, and differences in cultural and familial norms among people of color. She also says that many workers in the area, like those who work outside in orchards, became infected because they were not provided adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) by their employer.
“We’ve treated people of all races for COVID-19,” Julia says. “But I’ve seen entire Latino families — large families who live in close proximity to each other — all become infected in a short amount of time. It’s really sad to see.”
Thankfully, after Washington’s statewide mask mandate went into effect in June, Yakima County saw a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations — easing the strain on local health care systems and improving the safety of nurses and the community. It was then that Julia made the decision to step back from providing direct care to COVID-19 patients and work in other areas of the hospital, so she could care for her 89-year-old father, Edward, who was recovering from surgery.
“With all of the visitor restrictions in place at rehabilitation facilities at the time, we made a decision as a family to take care of Dad on our own,” she says. “We’re all very close, and we didn’t want him to become isolated and lonely without us around him cheering him on.”
In addition to fighting for the lives of her patients, Julia has been fighting for nurses’ rights as chair of WSNA’s Cabinet on Economic and General Welfare — fielding calls from other members on the front lines about PPE shortages in their facilities, assisting in creating interim local unit contracts and researching how WSNA can better advocate for nurses, patients and other health care workers throughout the pandemic.
“Nurses have a standard of care and are trying really hard to do what we think is necessary for our patients to survive, but how can we do that without all of the equipment and information we need?” she asks. “It’s an ongoing battle, and we’re all fatigued, but we have to move forward and say, ‘We don’t want this to happen again, and these are the things that need to occur to prevent that.’”
Despite the many challenges and issues that COVID-19 has laid bare, Julia says the collective strength of nurses can help change the course of the pandemic in Washington state.
“We’ve saved lives; it’s what we do and what we have always done,” she says. “Once we get through this crisis, we’re going to need to take a deep breath, care for ourselves, and then rise up to get all of the broken things fixed for the next time. Because we’re the ones who can do it.”