HCMC nurse: ‘Unless we acknowledge it and then do something about it … we’re just going to be stuck in this pandemic rut’

Jennifer Vongroven

The Southwest Journal is documenting the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. As the outbreak evolves, we will be checking in with the participants regularly. Read all of the stories here.

All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer Vongroven, bedside nurse, HCMC

There are fewer COVID cases now. There are fewer inpatient patients and there are fewer patients in the ICU by far. There’s been a gradual change over the last week or two. As of yesterday, there were four ICU patients and 11 non-ICU inpatients, which is a huge difference. I’m guessing we’re at a quarter of what we were before if not more. [In late May, there were more than 80 confirmed COVID-19 patients at HCMC, about a third of them in the ICU.]

My personal opinion is it’s because people were washing their hands, they were staying home, they were quarantining. This definitely helps prevent the spread of the disease. The less vigilant we become, the more the disease is going to spread again and again. We are already trending up in Minnesota.

The change I’ve seen most as a float nurse [during the lull] is I’m not always scheduled for the ICU right now. That’s liberalized my workday a little more, because I don’t think people realize how draining it is to put on that PPE [personal protective equipment] and take it off every time you’re coming in and out of a room.

I have not been reading as much national news about the pandemic lately, mostly because of what’s happening around the city and in my own neighborhood.

I’ve stepped back from being a street medic because every time I go to the hospital, I am increasing my chance of getting COVID. And I do have asthma and it would be a risk, if I get the virus. Should I get sick, I’m not only putting myself at risk, I’m putting my patients and coworkers at risk and am also short-staffing the hospital. 

But I have been quite involved with the neighborhood. The Powderhorn Park [homeless] sanctuary is a block from my house. I started riding my bike to work and I ride past the sanctuary every day. It’s definitely a humanitarian crisis that is happening in front of us. 

What’s different right now in my neighborhood is you can’t drive through Chicago Avenue anymore. It’s a semi-permanent memorial to George Floyd. I’ve been visiting it on a regular basis since the day after he was killed.

That’s the new normal. It’s the new normal to have 300 people living in the park. It’s the new normal to have strangers walking by who we don’t normally see. This is a good opportunity to engage in social distancing while still having conversations out in the open. 

But I can’t go to the stores I’d normally go to because a lot of them have burned down or been destroyed. I’m concerned for my safety. There have been two reported cases of sexual assault in the last two weeks. There is a receptacle for found needles — and that worries me because this is where I walk with my dog.  

On a selfish level, I want to be able to play in the park with my dog. It’s a change from my normal. I normally drive down Chicago Avenue to go to my bank or my drug store. I can’t do those things anymore. 

But it is selfish. When you compare it with what people with homelessness or mental health issues or people suffering from racial disparities face everyday, my privilege is showing. I also want people to have adequate housing. I’ll be paying student loans for years to come, but I am privileged in that I am white in America, have steady employment, a home and a dependable network of friends and family. 

My neighborhood has, through its various meetings, made a conscious effort to not call the police — because people of color are more at risk. I find this concerning, but I understand the rationale behind it.

I’ve spoken with several police officers, including a couple with the MPD, about what’s going on. One of them said, “I would give up five cops for five mental health workers.” The police I’ve spoken with believe much along the lines of what the public wants — a reallocation of funds into a more appropriate venue. The 2020 budget for police is $193 million, while for affordable housing it’s $31 million. 

My neighborhood watch is still active, but it’s not as busy as it was. There’s definitely more crime in the area. There are fewer helicopters in the area, but when I hear one my heart starts to thump.

A month ago, I was dealing with everything that was happening — between the intensity of the ICU and the COVID patients and their family members and the stress at home and the never-ending assault on the senses. 

It was hard. I was not doing well. I was not eating well. About three weeks after all of these things happened, I hit a shutdown mode and, for a couple of days, I kind of convalesced. I needed to do that for my well-being. 

Sleep is still a little challenging, but it’s getting better now. I’ve turned on some loud fans at night so the fireworks — or was it a gunshot? — don’t bother me quite as much. Because there’s nothing I can do about it while laying in my bed.

I feel like COVID has not gone away and another lockdown may be in our future. I know that’s going to be very difficult on people, but it may be necessary to prevent another jump. 

We need to understand this disease is not going to go away — that racial disparity is never going to go away — unless we acknowledge it and then do something about it. Until that happens, we’re just going to be stuck in this pandemic rut.


VOICES FROM THE PANDEMIC

 You can read all of the stories here.