The state, in partnership with the UNLV School of Medicine, has launched a new phone support service for health care workers responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
Called the Nevada HealthCARES Warmline, the phone service — 1-833-434-0385 — is designed to help Nevada health care professionals deal with the stress and anxiety related to tackling the COVID-19 virus by helping them develop both immediate and long-term coping strategies.
Dr. Stephanie Woodard, the senior advisor on behavioral health in the Nevada department of health and human services, said the project is a “great example of what can happen when a university partners with the state.”
Health care workers are likely to be treating the coronavirus for some time to come and that means high levels of stress as they try to help others and protect themselves and their families, she said. Woodard, who said the stress she saw medical professionals suffer in the aftermath of the Oct. 1, 2017, shooting on the Strip that killed 58 and wounded 413 convinced her that more support is needed for health care professionals who deal with highly traumatic situations.
While Woodard said many things are reopening in Nevada, “that doesn’t mean COVID-19 has gone.” She noted that many medical experts believe outbreaks of the virus will be seen this fall and winter.
Dr. Sara Hunt, the assistant dean of behavioral health sciences for the School of Medicine, is overseeing the warmline project. She said the phone service, free and offering anonymity, will be staffed by volunteer health professionals, including some from the mental health field, from around the state Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.to 8 p.m.
Psychological First Aid
It is an adaptation of the Psychological First Aid (PFA) practice used by the American Red Cross.
“PFA is typically provided face-to-face in response to a disaster but has been adapted to be provided virtually given the current public health crisis and social distancing restrictions,” Hunt said. “Volunteers can assist with reducing stress and promoting healthy coping through a variety of interventions and actions, such as providing contact information for a needed community resource (perhaps child care or rental assistance), sharing relaxation strategies, providing tips for improving sleep, or recommending a referral to mental health services.”
Hunt said volunteers who have been trained in PFA, an evidence-informed practice of recognizing and responding to people experiencing disaster-related stress, have been recruited through the Battle Born Medical Corps and the State Emergency Registry of Volunteers-Nevada (SERV-NV). They include licensed mental health and other health professionals from throughout Nevada.
A warmline, Hunt said, is a step down from a 24-7 hotline, which already has been established and serves people in immediate crisis. “A warmline is there to keep people from getting to that crisis level, to offer support and resources according to their current need or source of stress.”
Dr. Alison Netski, the chair of the School of Medicine department of psychiatry and behavioral health, has been consulting on the project. She pointed out many individuals in the health care field have been affected by COVID-19, stretching from doctors and nurses to facility service workers, patient attendants, and counselors.
She said some health care workers, such as those who have moved out of homes they share with elderly parents or grandparents because they fear they may spread the virus to them, may need to know where to go for emergency funds, food, and child care.
Changing daily life
“The pandemic has altered the daily life of health care workers,” Netski said, stressing that many health care workers become emotionally spent in hospitals and nursing homes because they feel they can’t do enough for those they serve. They become deeply sad for their dying patients, many of whom slip away without loved ones at their side.
Whether it’s the fear of catching the virus and taking it home to their families or providing extra emotional support to families who can’t see their loved ones in the hospital because of the virulence of the contagion, COVID-19 is taking a heavy emotional toll on health care workers, she said. “And you can’t forget the health care workers who may have been furloughed because medical procedures couldn’t be done in hospitals because of the virus,” she said. “They’re now in emotional turmoil caused by financial distress.”
Woodard said state grants have made the warmline accessible for the next 18 months. She said she appreciates how the UNLV School of Medicine has made the warmline work logistically, from the recruitment and training of volunteers to the information technology underpinnings of the statewide system. Callers are presented with a list of options that include talking with a volunteer or forwarding the call to another service such as the Crisis Support Services of Nevada or COVID-19 testing availability.
“IT has been asked to bring online or to support many things in response to the epidemic,” said Cam Johnson, the director of information technology (IT) operations for the medical school, who has worked with UNLV’s Cyndi Backstrom and Samuel Kardasz on the project as well as with Cox Communications. “For me personally, I’'m most proud of this project as it addresses something that is often overlooked — mental health.”
Hunt said the phone line gives an outlet to those in health care “who may just want to talk to someone about what they’ve been through...these are people who are going through very difficult challenges in a very high-stress environment. Offering them this type of support may begin to relieve some of that stress.”