Many people have become a lot more involved in public health recently… due to the pandemic. With increased focus on public health, there are increased expectations placed on public health nurses.
In this article, you’ll get an inside look of what a Public Health Nurse truly does, and how the role changes during a pandemic.
The Role of a Public Health Nurse
A public health nurse cares for the community, rather than an individual. Some roles of the public health nurse include: home visiting, administering immunizations, working in a community health clinic, working to prevent communicable diseases, working in schools or jails, and responding to emergencies. Depending on the community, a nurse may work in just one of those roles, or they may take on a number of them.
A day in the life
A public health nurse’s job looks pretty different day to day. Here is a quick glimpse into an average day:
8:00 Upon arriving, check emails and voicemails and return urgent messages. Prepare for a home visit by reviewing chart notes, gathering tools to administer a developmental screening, and printing educational handouts.
9:00 Spend an hour meeting with a family for their home visit, perform an assessment of the baby, review the baby’s nutrition and feeding plan, provide breastfeeding education, and make necessary referrals.
10:00 Drive back to the office and begin documenting the visit. Check the COVID-19 phone for any newly reported cases. Crosscheck with coworkers to determine who needs to be called for a case investigation, and assign case investigations if needed.
11:00 Review state reporting system for daily COVID-19 cases and make phone calls to those who have not yet been reached.
12:00 Break for lunch!
13:00 Check messages again from the public COVID-19 nurse line. Examples of messages may include:
One woman calls to request support getting groceries because she lives with an autoimmune condition, has been self-quarantined, and her husband will be gone for work.
One father calls and is livid that daughter cannot go to ballet practice because she was exposed to COVID at her other extracurricular activity. He demands a COVID-19 test.
One gentleman calls complaining that there was a group of people playing volleyball outside at the community center without wearing masks.
One woman calls infuriated she was not able to enter the grocery store without wearing a mask because the governor mandated wearing masks indoors.
One woman calls demanding COVID-19 testing to travel for her 3-week vacation to Europe, where she’ll be visiting multiple countries, and her airline is requiring a negative COVID test result.
One young man calls angry that he is not allowed to return to school because he had tested positive for COVID-19 and his symptoms have gone away.
One young lady calls angry that her coworker at the coffee shop returned to work even though she knows she tested positive for COVID-19 two days ago.
14:00 - 15:00 Administer COVID-19 tests and vaccinations in the health department clinic.
16:00 Attend a meeting for local public health authorities, while multitasking.
17:00 Charting, faxing, and completing case investigation documentation.
What changes during a pandemic?
Public health nursing has been around since 1890, so it’s not a new specialty by any means! Nurses who’ve been working in public health since before the pandemic have had to make many adjustments to incorporate COVID-19 into their regular jobs.
Similar to other areas of nursing, public health nurses have been asked to take on tasks that are different from the ones they were initially assigned. For example, the nurse giving you that vaccine or COVID-19 test may have been hired as a school nurse. Like you, they may be out of their element. But, while these tasks may be new to the nurse, their essential skills of prioritization and delegation utilized to complete those tasks are second nature.
What stays the same?
Public health nurses remain advocates during a pandemic. Consider the above example, in which the nurse must respond to radically different phone messages and concerns. During a pandemic, when a disease has become so stigmatized and politicized, nurses work with a great degree of neutrality to treat each person with respect, dignity, and care. The nurse sees through the external behavior of anxiety, anger, and frustration to the core need for safety and security. The nurse exhibits extreme empathy and consideration in public health, just as they would at the bedside because people are just as different in their worldviews, values, and culture inside the hospital as they are outside.
Morganne Skinner, RN, BSN is a nurse of 6 years with experience in surgical trauma ICU, rehabilitation and maternal child health. She lived in Zambia for 2 years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Currently, she works in Public Health, specializing in communicable disease and maternal child health.