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How nurses can help their colleagues on the COVID-19 front lines

Over 50,000 new US coronavirus cases reported in a single day

While the headlines change and the numbers of those infected and dying dip and surge, most nurses on the frontlines of COVID-19 care are experiencing steady levels of stress, challenge, exhaustion, and perhaps despair.

If you're a nurse who's not intimately involved with ICU, respiratory care, nursing homes or other areas hard hit by the pandemic, you may be in a good position to support and encourage nurse friends and colleagues who are.

Many of the gestures are the same things you'd be doing if you were a friend or family member trying to support nurses during COVID-19. For example, you could get the laundry done if this nurse on the front lines lives in your household, take over some childcare or transportation or help that nurse get quality sleep whenever possible.

But there are also unique efforts you can make as a fellow nurse who's not on the front line. Not only do you have an insider's understanding of the pressures of nursing before COVID-19 made an appearance, you're also often entitled to some of the same freebies. And you're in the loop on your employer's policies, even though you're not personally affected.

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A lot of the support strategies you may have used when the pandemic first reared its ugly head in the U.S. are just as appreciated now -- maybe more so, since people's efforts tend to wane as the pandemic continues and they let more time go between contacting friends enmeshed in pandemic care. And if you haven't been able to lend nurses on the front lines extra support previously, you may realize that you're in a better position now. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Provide modest perks. Delaney McCann is now in grad school as part of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine's Nurse Anesthesia Class of 2022, but she hasn't forgotten her former colleagues who are now embroiled in the pandemic response. Her top means of supporting those nurses is to send them unexpected extras. "I have been Venmoing my nurse friends money for coffee, pizza at work, or to use however they need," she says. "I know money is tight right now for everyone, but when I was working as a nurse, just knowing that other people were thinking of me really helped me get through some hard shifts, like flu season, which pales in comparison to this!"

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Research the freebies and enroll your nurse friend. Even though many of the promotions for nurses working during the pandemic have expired, including Crocs and Starbucks, there are still lots of promotions, discounts and freebies floating around in cyberspace. The thing is, nurses overwhelmed by working the ICU or other front line locations may not have the time or energy to collect their due. Since you're also a nurse, you're in a great position to track down the freebies and register both of you. (Hint: A good place to start is Krispy Kreme's promotion for healthcare workers that allows them to buy a dozen glazed donuts and get a second dozen for $1 through Labor Day 2020.) To make this truly effective and supportive, go as far as you can on tapping into the benefits before involving your nurse friend. Instead of texting to say, "Hey, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey has free masks!" go ahead and get the email address and all the information needed, and forward it so your friend can just take a second or two to claim the freebie. And there's no law against you accessing the same perk and passing it to a front-line nurse, if the promotion has been extended to all medical professionals and you qualify.

Find out how your employer might help stressed nurses. As a fellow employee, you're in a unique position to learn about your company's offerings for mental health services, medical coverage for different level employees and numerous other benefits or programs. If you've got time, create a short list of what's available and how to access it. And then let your front-line worker pals know that you've done the research and have a pretty good idea of what services are available and where they can start if they need help. Sometimes those suffering PTSD or compassion fatigue find it extra hard to access the programs that could help with anxiety or depression, because, well, they're anxious or depressed. You can be a helpful bridge here, if you're willing.

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Reach out. As the pandemic wears on, it's way too easy for the rest of the world to forget about the nurses toiling in ICUs and other areas stretched to the limit by COVID-19. Make up for that by being sure to text or email your favorite front-line worker, or even someone you're not all that fond of that you know can use the support. Be sure to tailor the check-in to that person's communication style. No fair emailing people who never check their email, or posting something charming on Facebook when you're not sure your fellow nurse uses social media often.

Don't forget the night shift. Some of the front-line heroes are night-shift nurses, which can involve too much isolation even at the best of times. If you also work nights, make sure to reach out to this oft-ignored group with well wishes, encouragement and maybe a coffee gift card or two. If you're on a different shift, pick a time you could both talk, or Zoom, or take a socially-distanced walk together. Just having someone inquire about their schedule can really give those nurses a boost. Keep it simple. Ask, "What's a good time to reach you? Can we drop off breakfast after your next shift?"

Multiply and conquer. If you work in a close-knit group or have friends and family who have always supported nurses, be a leader and get others involved in your efforts. Technology is your friend here, especially apps and programs like Meal Train. It lets you organize support and meals for friends who are sick or just had babies, so why not  do the same for those who are working to battle COVID-19 in very stressful situations? If you get a calendar or reminder system set up, you'll be much more likely to follow up on your good intentions. And face it, these gestures may be needed for a long time to come.

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Wear your mask and practice social distancing. Unless you've been hiding out at home this entire pandemic, you know that not all nurses abide by CDC guidelines in their off-hours. If you're one of that group, consider boosting the morale of your front-line nursing compatriots by vowing to up your safety observances whenever you're in public. Sure, it's inconvenient. But when emergency, ICU, respiratory and other nurses must face the daily stress and sadness of caring for COVID-19 patients, donning a mask in public seems like a way to respect their efforts and support them. And for Pete's sake, if you are going to ignore distancing and mask precautions, don't post the evidence on social media where your frontline friends can see it and feel that slap in the face.

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Chalk up the walk. Registered nurse Melissa Waggoner, a director of surgical services in Florida, was tickled to find a positive message chalked onto the sidewalk near where she and the rest of the crew enter to work at the hospital. Because of pandemic restrictions, non-medical professionals wouldn't have access to such areas. But as a fellow nurse at the same hospital, you could most likely take the time to encourage your front-line colleagues while maintaining safety precautions and social distancing. Remember, it's also important to look out for yourself during this pandemic and all the societal and family pressures that come in its wake. You don't have to feel guilty or try to stay invisible just because you're not on the front lines: Any time you work as a nurse you're providing valuable services to vulnerable populations, and you deserve perks and support too.