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Pandemic Healthcare Workers: How to Stay Safe and Healthy

Beautiful illustration used with permission by Morgan Green. Please do not remove artist's credentials or use without her permission and credit.

Beautiful illustration used with permission by Morgan Green. Please do not remove artist's credentials or use without her permission and credit.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure.

— Benjamin Franklin

How Can Healthcare Professionals Safely Work Through a Pandemic?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), prevention measures are the only way to conquer a pandemic crisis. While everyone should practice these measures, healthcare providers must be even more diligent to continue working daily. Like it or not, we're in it to win it, so we must remain strong, and taking these simple measures helps ensure we get to show up to work during the crisis:

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds after every single contact with patients and all surfaces. Even if simply walking into the restroom to use the mirror or change your clothes, washing your hands is a must.
  • Avoid touching your face, eyes, and mouth. This takes a conscious effort since it's a common habit for most. Every time you touch a surface and scratch your nose or adjust your contact lens, you've created a pathway to contracting pathogens.
  • Avoid direct contact with napkins, tissues, or similar items used by patients. Be especially mindful when clearing patient's meal trays, bedside tables, or assisting with toileting.
  • Protect others by covering your mouth when coughing, clearing your throat, or sneezing—do so into a tissue, or your arm, not into your hands.
  • Please stay home if you're sick, in ANY manner. This prevents the spread of other forms of illnesses that decrease immunity and make people more susceptible to power viruses. While most health-care providers are accustomed to going to work in the midst of a cough or cold, a pandemic crisis is not the time to do that—even if you fear backlash from your manager or coworkers due to short-staffing.

Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.

— Hippocrates

Easy Measures to Decrease the Spread of Disease

  • Disinfect all home and work surfaces daily and common surfaces several times throughout the day. If you can't get your hands on disinfecting wipes or sprays for your home—which is the case in many areas during a pandemic—make a simple solution using 1 part bleach to 9 parts water in a spray bottle.
  • Practice "social distancing." It's as simple as it sounds, meaning to consciously keep at least a six-foot space between you and the person in front, behind, or beside you in public places, even at work amongst your peers.
  • Minimize contact with ALL people. Avoid public transportation whenever possible, limit nonessential travel, and work from home if your position is capable. Reschedule social gatherings and avoid crowded bars, restaurants, stores, and sporting events. You can still support your local businesses by shopping online and being patient when deliveries take longer than usual.
  • Avoid direct contact with family and friends who don't live with you. We love our people, but we can show love and concern without being on top of one another. You'll miss out on visits with adult children, grandchildren, and even our parents. We can still help our parents by having food delivered or dropping it off while maintaining that social distance. Our older generation is at a higher risk of acquiring a rampant pandemic virus. We, as healthcare providers, are at a higher risk of carrying and transmitting it too. Do the right thing. It may feel lonely and isolating at the time, but they will thank you later.
  • Use technology to keep in touch with loved ones. We live in a fantastic time in more ways than we ever imagined to stay in touch. If you haven't tried live communication such as FaceTime, Google Duo, Zoom, or Skype, now's the time to learn them!
  • Amp up your sleep and practice stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, yoga, and light exercise for your wellness and peace of mind.

A Historical Note Regarding the COVID-19 Crisis

At the time of this article, the world was amid the coronavirus pandemic, colloquially known as COVID-19. Many tips for healthcare workers speak specifically to the transmission of COVID-19. However, these tips are broadly helpful for any pandemic. The following points are specific to COVID-19:

  • According to the University of Alabama, Birmingham, wearing surgical masks in public wasn't recommended because of the idea that brief exposure to the virus in public is unlikely to make a person sick. Most cases have occurred when there's been prolonged contact--this idea changed a few months into the pandemic as positive cases continued to climb. Now masks are recommended in most public areas. Wearing masks is recommended for healthcare professionals, caregivers, and those exhibiting disease symptoms. This advice could change any time, so stay on top of the current CDC recommendations.

During COVID-19, “every reduction in the number of contacts you have per day with relatives, friends, co-workers, and in school will have a significant impact on the ability of the virus to spread in the population” said Dr. Gerardo Chowell, chair of Population Health Sciences at Georgia State University.

Pack Food That Doesn't Require Using a Shared Microwave or Refrigerator

Microwaves and ice/water machines win the prize for harboring loads of surface bacteria. Everyone uses them multiple times daily, but you don't have to. With some stealth pre-planning, you can pack easy and healthy food items that require no water or heat, which equals no touching those surfaces.

Sure, we wash and sanitize our hands after everything we touch, but it's hard not to touch the food we put into our mouths. Your safest bet is to keep your food in a tote or small soft cooler in your locker, with a small ice pack for perishables, to avoid using a shared fridge. Keep it simple and stop the meal-time germ transmission with proactive meal planning and packing.

These are my go-to staples when I head to work.

  • Make hard boiled eggs. I make a dozen at a time in just seven minutes in my Instant Pot and they're perfect every single time. Two hard boiled eggs provide a filling, protein-packed fix with roughly 12 grams of protein and approximately 160 calories. Pair them with a healthy energy bar or protein drink and you're good to go! I mostly eat "Kind" brand bars because they're low in sugar, and gluten, soy, and GMO-free.
  • Meal-prep a batch of protein-packed, hearty red or white bean chili and take it (already heated) in a good old-fashioned thermos. Or if you're like me and think Yeti is the be all end all for keeping things hot, give the 12- or 26-ouncer a try!
  • Make a simple peanut or almond butter and jelly sandwich on organic sprouted whole grain bread. If you haven't tried "Dave's Killer Breads", you may end up eating PB&J everyday once you do!
  • Make a salad with those awesome hard boiled eggs, garbanzo beans, fruit, nuts, and loads of fresh vegetables and microgreens. Keep your salad dressing in your bag and not in a separate bottle in the communal fridge. Bring your own utensils versus using the open plastic ones from the breakroom or cafeteria.
  • One half to one cup of unsalted almonds is also filling and contains healthy fat. I always have a bag of almonds in my locker for a quick way to stave off hunger when there's no time to stop and eat.

Let Thy Medicine Be Thy Food and Thy Food Be Thy Medicine.

— Hippocrates

Boost Your Immunity With Nutrient-Packed Foods

By eating immune-boosting foods high in antioxidants and all the great juju our body needs, we stand a better chance of staying healthy and continuing to provide the care our patients need. Here's a fast and furious list of the immune-boosting foods I've compiled from credible sources that are easy to pack, can be added to your salad, or eaten on the fly like many healthcare workers often do:

  1. Citrus fruits and red bell peppers contain abundant vitamin C (our bodies do not produce or store vitamin C). Vitamin C boosts white blood cells to fight infection.
  2. Papayas have 224 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C in a single one.
  3. Raw Broccoli is supercharged with vitamins A, C, and E, minerals, and fiber and is one of the healthiest vegetables you can eat. Spinach is second in command and also best in its raw form.
  4. Ginger reduces inflammation and soothes the gut. I add fresh slices to a cup of boiling water, steep it, and drink it as tea.
  5. Almonds contain vitamin E and healthy fat. A half-cup serving provides nearly 100 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin E.
  6. Kiwis are naturally full of essential nutrients: Folate, potassium, vitamin K, and vitamin C.

Prevention is the best first line of defense when dealing with a pandemic with no known cure, which also means keeping our immunity at full throttle.

Immune Boosting Elderberry Syrup

Immune Boosting Elderberry Syrup

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What About Black Elderberry Syrup?

There's much discussion on social media about the benefits of black elderberries for immunity. I've been making and using homemade black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) syrup for the past three years, especially before traveling by plane or cruise ship. There's some on my stove boiling as I write this article! I'm happy to say I hadn't been sick in over five years. I neglected to take it before a cruise and during the midst of a very long and stressful move. I was ill for five weeks with bronchitis—or maybe it was COVID-19? At any rate, I swear by it and recommend it to people all the time.

I rarely see negative reviews, mostly all positive, so I did more in-depth research to see what the experts say on the topic of this seemingly potent berry. According to the University of Alabama, Birmingham's Dr. Jessica Grayson, M.D.,

“There are many studies on the antiviral and antimicrobial activity of elderberry,” It has been shown in some studies to bind to some subtypes of the flu virus to prevent cell entry. However, there are still more studies needed to confirm whether this is true substantial benefit.”

Here's one of the most comprehensive articles I've read on the topic of black elderberry syrup regarding immunity, written by Dr. Kevin Curran, a biology professor at the University of San Diego.

If you've enjoyed this article, be sure to check out my other popular piece on getting (and staying!) healthy:


This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Debra Roberts


Perla Bagayaua on April 20, 2020:

I love this article and you are a nurse! I also have an article about how to deal with difficult individuals in time of pandemic. I'm a social worker/Frontline staff. Great post. Thank you.

Gina Mitchell from Midwest - USA on April 13, 2020:

Great information Deb. I appreciate everything our health care workers are doing for us during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Lisa D on April 12, 2020:

Your suggestion about avoiding using the fridge or microwave was awesome! How many times a day do we touch both without thinking about it! Especially for those of us who are confined to home and tend to open the fridge more than ususal...if only to stare at the insides before closing the door again.

Alexandra on April 11, 2020:

Wow! Your sure had a lot of tips that are good for everybody and not just healthcare workers. But looking at your list of things one should do, It seems so exhausting, though truly necessary.

The biggest problem I find is keeping kids, especially toddlers, from touching their face and mouth. Being a single mom, I have had to take my children with me when we go to the store. I try to limit how many times we have to go and I try to pick times when fewer people will be there. But I've found that if I even say something about not touching their face, their hands automatically go right to their face. It's a given. So I stress not touching anything and don't say anything about the face unless I see them do it. And I carry hand sanitizer.

This was a lot of good information. Thanks!

Erica (The Prepping Wife) on April 10, 2020:

These are some great tips! My favorite is avoiding the refrigerator and microwave. That is spot-on, yet something I don't think that many realize or take into consideration. Hand washing and avoiding touching our faces is common sense, or the things we heard the most. But avoiding places that harbor germs is also extremely important, especially when it comes to food.

Melanie Williams on April 10, 2020:

Thank you for such an informative post. I agree that having a healthy diet is a must and a great way to give the body a boost

Melanie on April 10, 2020:

Thank you for such an informative post. I agree diet is super important and key to maintaining a healthy and strong immune system xx

Subhashish Roy on April 09, 2020:

Thank you for the post which serves as a great reminder for doing things right and taking all precautions during these trying times. Black elderberries for immunity is a new learning and I'll check out if I am able to get this syrup somewhere. No thanks is enough for the healthcare workers for all that they are sacrificing themselves for our safety. I am always praying for them and their well being.

Ashlee on April 09, 2020:

My cousin is a working EMT, dealing with patients of Covid-19 and it is not easy for her, but she is very diligent to ensure not only her health but also that of her family. She told me most of this article as well and that she has to sanitise and wash hands along with the soldiers almost every five minutes. The hardest thing is really not touching the face for us all I think.

Britt K on April 08, 2020:

This is great advice. My husband is not a healthcare worker, however, he is still working outside the home as his work falls under the current definition of 'essential'. We've been taking steps to try to keep him safe, as well as avoiding him bringing anything home. I hadn't considered some of the dietary options that you listed. Thank you!

Lene Andersen on April 08, 2020:

First, thank you so much for what you do as a health care worker at any time, but of course especially during the pandemic. These are all terrific tips to make sure that you stay as healthy as possible while surrounded by contagious people. I especially liked your food and drink tips — although we may know to wash our hands, I don’t think a lot of people think about things like a shared microwave. Just one note — if you have an autoimmune condition, you should not take Elderberry or other immune system boosters like Echinecea. They can cause a flare.

Lyosha on April 08, 2020:

Great tips! I am so grateful for all those people who put themselves at risk and help us to get though this. You did great gathering that info!

Kat on April 08, 2020:

Some great tips applicable to everyone who still has to go to work during the pandemic. It's heartbreaking that many people in this situation aren't able to see their families at the moment in order to protect them, but hopefully all of these measures will help us to get through this more quickly and safely.

In terms of food prep, I always make a salad with the following specifications: greens (usually lettuce) as a base, one tomato, one vegetable (beetroot, pepper, cooked carrot, avocado) and one scoop of beans/ lentils for protein. Then I add a sauce. I find this quite filling and tasty, especially if coupled with a slice of wholewheat toast with peanut butter.

Nicole Anderson on April 07, 2020:

This is such an informative and (obviously) timely article that lays out such great ideas and tips to help get us through this pandemic as safely as possible. I just wanted to express how much this is appreciated, on top of everything you and your healthcare professional colleagues are doing to help so many people right now. Best wishes for your continued safety through this worrying time.

Scott DeNicola on April 07, 2020:

This pandemic is really disheartening and I like to get my advice from people on the front line and not from facebook and other social media doctors spewing nonsense. Living in the epicenter of the US in New York I haven’t seen my mom in 4 weeks. She doesn’t leave her house much as it is so not much has really changed for her other than not getting to see anyone we bring her supplies and leave them in her garage for her. My hands have never been more raw in my life from so much washing so I can’t imagine what yours are like. I’m trying to do my best to stay as healthy as possible and continue to exercise and eat right. I appreciate the insight from the front lines

Laurinzoscott from Kanab, Utah on March 24, 2020:

WOW, well you all our in my prayers..and as always my hat is off to all healthcare workers who sacrifice so much to help us all

Liz Westwood from UK on March 24, 2020:

There has been an issue in the UK with adequate supply of protective equipment for health professionals.

Laurinzoscott from Kanab, Utah on March 20, 2020:

This article is very informative and draws to mind things we all should STAY mindful of...and yes the most important safegaurd for us healthcare workers(im a former one) is to safegaurd our mental and emotional hats off to all of you!!!

Mitara N from South Africa on March 19, 2020:

Interesting and insightful article, well written

Thanks for sharing

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 19, 2020:

I have never had elderberry syrup but it sounds like an excellent idea. I will try to learn more about it.

I am a retired RN also. I think you wrote a very good, in-depth article about staying safe with COVID19. I will be glad when we are on the downside of this pandemic.

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