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Stories: On the frontlines of COVID-19 care

An interview with Margo Bykonen, chief nursing officer

According to forecasting from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the Seattle area passed the peak of COVID-19 cases in the first week of April. We’re by no means out of the woods. But now that the curve has begun to flatten, we checked in with Margo Bykonen, RN, our chief nursing officer, to discuss how we prepared, how we responded and how our frontline caregivers saw us through the storm.

What has the scene been like inside our hospitals? The images coming out of New York have been sobering.

We haven’t see the extreme volume of patients that we were expecting, based on the Public Health projections. We believe that is primarily due to the public’s commitment to staying home and physical distancing. I can’t imagine what the experience has been in places like New York, where they have exceeded the projected numbers and are overwhelmed. We’re currently caring for over a hundred admitted individuals with COVID-19 across our five hospitals.

How did we prepare our caregivers for the predicted surge?

As we postponed elective and non-urgent surgeries, we had a lot of staff who no longer had work to do. So we cross-trained more than 700 nurses to be partners to our ICU staff. So we had a plan for leveraging the staff as best as we could, but we have not had to utilize that in a formal structure.

How else did they have to adapt to this new environment?

Certainly they needed to become very competent with donning and doffing their PPE. They're also providing that TLC for the patients who don't have visitors coming to see them. Our staff have adopted some very innovative ways of helping families communicate with their loved ones, whether it’s with Skype or FaceTime.

What are we doing to protect our caregivers on the frontline?

We’ve been abiding by World Health Organization recommendations for PPE, while working to source enough to last throughout this crisis. We’re talking millions of pieces of equipment. And in an environment where we haven’t been able to rely on the federal stockpile, we’ve had to be creative—including methods for sterilizing and reusing masks.

How would you describe our nurses’ and caregivers’ work through this experience?

I actually just sent a message to all of the nurses, expressing my gratitude for their heroism. We all go into health care knowing that there could be times where you're balancing risk to yourself with the care of your patients. When you add the uncertainty of learning about this disease in real time, the apprehension and fear must be tremendous. Yet they show up every day, put on their PPE and take care of our community.

PHOTO GALLERY: Take a virtual tour of our hospitals to see how our caregivers are responding to COVID-19 and working to reduce its spread.