Experiences of critical care nurses during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Nursing Ethics







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Background: Critical care nurses have risked their lives and in some cases their families through hazardous duty during the COVID-19 pandemic and have faced multiple ethical challenges. Research/aim: The purpose of our study was to examine how critical care nurses coped with the sustained multi-faceted pressures of the critical care environment during the unchartered waters of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was anticipated that our study might reveal numerous ethical challenges and decision points. Research design: A qualitative descriptive study, utilizing an interpretivist paradigm. Participants and research setting: Critical care nurses, working in either intensive care units or emergency departments (N = 11) who were primarily from Northern California hospitals. Individual in-depth ZOOM® session interviews, guided by semi-structured questions, were used to collect data. Interviews lasted between 18 and 59 min, with an average length of 33 min. Session interviews were transcribed and analyzed. Ethical considerations: This study was approved by the researchers’ university Institutional Review Board. Findings: Five main themes emerged: Fear of the Unknown, Adapting to Practice Changes and Challenges, Patient Advocacy and Moral Distress, Isolation and the Depersonalization of Care, and Professionalism and a Call to Duty. Discussion and conclusion: Fear of becoming ill or bringing COVID-19 home to their families was a constant source of anxiety for nurses. There were numerous changes in policy and challenges to standard practice protocols, including most notably shortages in personal protective equipment, which nurses navigated resourcefully. Most nurses interviewed were motivated by a sense of professional duty. The nurses experienced some moral distress in their inability to advocate as they might like for their patients, especially at end of life. Infection control requirements for isolation.


Areas of practice, end of life issues, intensive care, moral distress, moral sensitivity, moral/ethical climate of organizations, topic areas