In the weeks that immediately followed the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington state, Justin Gill was doing the best he could to stay afloat. As a nurse practitioner in Providence Health & Services’ urgent care and walk-in clinics in Everett and Monroe, Justin was called on to provide what little information was known about the virus to an influx of concerned patients. At the time, not much was known about the varied symptoms presented by COVID-positive patients, and the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had different recommendations on how to best protect health care workers.
“It was a lot, and was all of a sudden,” Justin remembers. “People came in looking for tests and accurate information about the virus, and we couldn’t give them either. We were all frustrated, and I quickly became overwhelmed in a matter of weeks.”
As the pandemic began to bore down across the U.S. and Americans shuttered themselves in their homes, total urgent care center volumes were down 50% nationwide — a statistic health officials largely attribute to the public’s fear of contracting COVID-19 inside health care facilities. Justin says his outpatient facilities saw a similar dip in patients, but eventually ticked back up to greater summer and fall patient volumes than in recent years. He attributes this rise to the additional need to test patients with cold or other virus-causing symptoms for COVID-19. Today, urgent care patients are separated in two suites, respiratory and non-respiratory, and Justin works in both areas, depending on the day.
Although he’s not providing critical care for patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms in a hospital ICU, Justin says he and his fellow ambulatory care nurses still feel a powerful sense of responsibility in keeping Washingtonians safe and healthy.
“Every single health care worker, from the housekeeper to the hospital administrator, has an ability to actually influence the pandemic overall,” he says. “We are all part of the system, and everyone plays an important role in keeping our patients and communities safe.”
Justin says that despite all the challenges of COVID-19, the pandemic has reinforced his passion for policy and advocacy. As a part-time lecturer of health policy at the University of Washington Bothell School of Nursing and Health Studies, he hopes to ignite the same passion in his students to become advocates for nurses everywhere.
“I tell my students that what we are dealing with now is a perfect example of how public policy directly impacts their clinical practice, like whether they have PPE, testing resources and education materials,” he says. “If individuals in places of power don’t have a nurse’s awareness of what’s actually happening on the front lines, then you will have policies that don’t meet the needs of patient care.”
As chair of the Legislative and Health Policy Council, Justin helps set WSNA’s annual health policy and legislative agenda and plays an active role in reviewing and advancing our legislative priorities. When COVID-19 first arrived in Washington state, the 2020 Regular Session was just ending; after it adjourned in March, WSNA continued to work closely with the governor’s office to enact policies that will keep nurses and patients safe throughout the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has highlighted what nurses have known is wrong with our health care system for a long time,” he says. “But it’s also provided an opportunity for nurses to push forward priorities, both legislatively and in their own facilities, to enact change.”
In July, The Bellingham Herald published an op-ed written by Justin about the deficiencies in the nation’s overall response to the virus. In the article, he writes: “As we push through these tough times and emerge from the crisis, we must recognize the structural and societal problems that have impacted our national response. If we embrace our common humanity and strength as a collective unit, we can get through this.”