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Norfolk/Wrentham - Local Town Pages

On the Front Lines of a Pandemic

Oct 28, 2020 11:48AM ● By Grace Allen
Wrentham’s public health nurses are pretty busy these days. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Jeanine Murphy and Lauren Hewitt spent most of their time doing community outreach and education. Since March, however, the two nurses have found themselves on the front lines of a public health crisis that has redefined their roles and upended their professional routines.
“We had to do a complete 180 and adapt to an entirely different approach to nursing for our residents,” said Murphy. “The job description that existed for any public health nurse eight months ago has undergone a significant transformation.”
Disease surveillance and contract tracing is now their main focus, explained Murphy. The nurses have often been the first ones to notify individuals that their test results have come back positive. They then explain the state guidelines for isolation and quarantine and start contact tracing. State epidemiologists assist the nurses through any complicated scenarios and help them determine the best course of action.
“Our goal is to slow the spread by educating not only the confirmed cases and contacts, but the general public as well,” Murphy said. “By following these guidelines, we can and will slow the spread.”
The public health nurses are also playing a significant role in the health and safety of Wrentham’s children during this unusual school year. Murphy and Hewitt are working closely with the superintendents, principals, and school nurses to identify potential exposures in the schools, busses, and sporting events in town. As the pandemic continues, their guidance will help the school administrators determine whether to remain in hybrid mode, go completely remote, or even return to full in-person learning.
Wrentham has found itself in the highest risk “red” category a few times in the past several months. Murphy points out most of the cases have been in the town’s nursing homes and not the result of community spread, and therefore should not necessarily impact the schools’ decisions to stay in hybrid mode or go full remote.
The state has assigned an epidemiologist for each nursing home in town, but Murphy and Hewitt are in constant communication with the infectious disease contact or director of nursing in each facility. The public health nurses help to ensure proper protocols are being followed (isolation, quarantine, and cohorting, for example) to help decrease the spread. They also help monitor PPE supplies, noted Murphy.
Wrentham’s public health nurses provide many services for residents, but some of those, like home visits, are on hold now. Prior to the pandemic, the nurses served as a complement to the Visiting Nurses Association (VNA), stepping in when the VNA discharged patients by providing additional home visits and well-being checks for residents, usually seniors, who might still need care.
Murphy says the office tries to keep in touch with the seniors in town via telephone these days, and they work closely with the outreach workers at the senior center to keep tabs on the town’s elderly residents.
“Many seniors feel isolated and lonely and just want things to get back to normal,” she said.
During the pandemic, the nurses have held outdoor blood pressure and blood sugar clinics, as well as flu clinics, at the elderly housing complexes in town. And while any resident is welcome to make an appointment to see the nurses in their office at town hall, these visits are limited in length right now.
Public health nursing was established in 1893 in New York City in an effort to not only take care of the sick but to also improve living conditions of the poor. In 1921, Wrentham established its own public health nursing department, shortly after the end of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. While many towns have dismantled their public health nursing departments, Wrentham’s has evolved to have a more comprehensive role in the health of its residents.
Pandemics don’t go away on their own, and they don’t spread on their own, either. To keep Wrentham’s number of COVID-19 cases down, Murphy advises residents to maintain social distancing, staying at least 6 feet away from others. If closer contact is necessary, limit it to 10 minutes or less. Masks are important, but they must be worn correctly, covering the nose and mouth with no gaps, she notes.
Other infection control measures include good hand washing, and cleaning surfaces like doorknobs, light switches, spigots, and toilet handles frequently. Murphy adds families should avoid sharing toothpaste tubes and stop the spread of germs by covering coughs and sneezing into elbows. Use hand sanitizer between hand washing.
The unusual stress of living and working under a pandemic means little down time for Murphy and Hewitt.
“Public health nurses are at the forefront of something none of us have ever lived through before,” Murphy said. “We will help the public to the best of our ability. If we don’t have the answer to a question, we will find it. We will get through this together. COVID doesn’t take a break, which means we can’t either.”
Murphy adds the nurses’ office has plenty of doses of flu vaccine available and stresses the importance of getting a shot this year to minimize flu hospitalizations, leaving beds free for COVID-19 patients. Contact the office at 508-384-5485 to make an appointment for a flu shot or to speak to a nurse.