Preexisting staffing shortages and dismal pay are colliding with a crisis that’s testing the limits of the nurses and health aides caring for the sick and elderly.
Shelly Hughes’s typical day starts at 9 p.m. She’s used to not wanting to get out of bed and go to work, but now the feeling is much stronger. Her son, home from college because of social-distancing measures, tells her every day to quit her job. Lately her husband takes extra care to set out her scrubs and make sure that she has coffee. “He is just a little bit extra affectionate,” she told me. He reminds her to wash her hands and avoid people who cough. It’s “like he’s sending me off to war or something.”
In a sense, he is. Hughes is a nursing-home aide in Washington State, and her patients are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Hughes’s work has always been intimate, and hard: She helps her patients use the bathroom, changes their incontinence products, and repositions her patients so that they don’t get bedsores. She comforts them when they are worried and unable to sleep. But now she’s responsible for keeping them—and herself—safe in spite of staffing and equipment shortages that put both patients and health-care workers at risk.