VOICES: Grace Barnwell // A nurse practitioner’s perspective on COVID-19


Grace Barnwell

Grace Barnwell is a family nurse practitioner and leadership team member at Mercy Urgent Care.This is a contributor-submitted Voices piece. Want to join the conversation? We invite you to write for us. Learn how to share your voice here.

Back in pre-pandemic times, my job could often be a little hectic. As a family nurse practitioner and a member of the leadership team for Mercy Urgent Care, I split my time between clinical workseeing and treating patients — and administrative work, representing the clinical point of view. That’s how life was going until COVID-19 hit. As medical professionals everywhere can attest, COVID-19 derailed our sense of “normal” long before stay-at-home orders went into effect.

When reports of the virus first began appearing in international headlines back in January, our team got to work researching and studying every bit of information we could find. We weren’t sure yet how this would affect us, but we wanted to be prepared. We worked all hours of the day and night — researching, parsing through conflicting data, holding meetings and discussing options, developing protocols and rolling out new policies to keep our staff and patients safe — only to have the reality change a day later, prompting us to start all over with new strategies.

Our diligence in responding appropriately to a developing situation weighed on us all, and it felt as though there was not enough time in the day for all that we were trying to do to keep everyone safe. By the time shelter-in-place orders were issued in March, it was difficult to maintain a healthy work/life balance as we worked to continue to provide care, read nonstop, review website updates for clarity and accuracy and communicate internally and externally.

But, as the virus spread, more concrete data began to come out, and we began to have a clearer picture of what we were working with. Being an urgent care facility and not an emergency room, we were able to fine-tune our research to include only things immediately relevant to our patients and staff. I didn’t need to learn about hospital ventilators — I could focus on information about symptoms, testing, and general medical protocols. I needed answers for Urgent Care operations: When should I direct patients to seek additional medical care and when should I send them home to recover? Which patients should come in for testing and who can be seen in a telemedicine call? And, most importantly, where were all the test kits?

In mid-April, a month into our state’s stay-at-home restrictions, we received the go-ahead to begin testing for the virus. We had spent hours sourcing appropriate personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer for both patients and staff through local, national, and international channels. We couldn’t have been more thankful for our community’s outpouring of support — including volunteers we organized from all over Western North Carolina and beyond who pitched in to sew and donate masks to both our staff and our patients. Now, we’re in a place where we can test patients, help the health departments track the virus’s spread in WNC, and provide guidance based on the latest recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration as restrictions are eased and employers seek to reopen.

When all of this started, everyone hoped we would get back to normal. But now, as our country reopens, I find myself quoting Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, who, in an interview for The New Yorker, said, “Everyone now asks: When will things get back to normal? But as a physician and researcher, I fear the resumption of normality would signal a failure to learn. We need to think not about resumption but about revision.”

COVID-19 has brought about opportunities to rethink the way care can be delivered. For example, we can now assess a large number of our patients via telemedicine and we implemented a “Safe & Well” program for patients who require a hands-on assessment or care, such as stitches, X-rays and other procedures.

For now, we are here to help our community open back up safely. And remember to be cautious and apply the three Ws when leaving home: Wear a face covering, Wait six feet apart/avoid close contact, and Wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer.

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