South Los Angeles has been one of the hardest hit areas throughout the pandemic, having one of the highest case rates of COVID-19 in Los Angeles. Now that the vaccine is being rolled out, more disparities between this neighborhood and wealthier ones have arisen.
Through it all, Los Angeles nurses have been on the frontlines risking their lives every day. Despite the long hours and the unrelenting waves of sickness around them, they’ve powered through the pandemic.
“The only other way I could really describe it was like an apocalyptic movie,” said nurse Viridiana Harris. “It didn’t seem like there was an end in sight.”
Harris is an Orange County nurse and the secretary for the L.A. chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. She said that the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was a very “overwhelming” experience for her since she was newer to the profession and her unit was understaffed.
As Harris reflected on the past year, she recalled every emotional memory she had — memories of saving some patients while losing others, as well as her early worries about bringing home COVID-19 to her own family.
“You start seeing less cases and less cases showing up and it felt like now there’s a little bit of hope, you know,” she said. “I guess it feels now like, you’re starting to wake up a little bit from a nightmare.”
And Harris isn’t alone.
“Nurses are people, too,” South L.A. nurse Kevin Hernandez said. “We’re stuck in hospitals all day watching people die left and right. That causes psychological trauma to us.”
For Hernandez, the streets of South L.A. have become his clinic and administering vaccines, his calling. The recent nursing school graduate works for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services Housing for Health division — a COVID-19 response team doling out vaccines to those who are most at risk.
“The biggest obstacle that we’re facing in South L.A. is the negative feedback or the distrust within the community about the vaccine for COVID-19,” Hernandez said.
But Hernandez also witnessed a shift in attitudes toward the vaccine once more residents began to see their community members take advantage of the increased access. He believes that the more visible nurses are while administering vaccines, the more the community can build trust in healthcare workers and the vaccines themselves.
“I felt extremely happy that I was able to make a change in someone’s perception within the medical field,” Hernandez said. “Knowing there are nurses who care about the entire population regardless of their background, their situation and race and religion.”
Hernandez’s coworker at Housing for Health and South L.A. Violeta Viveros also says that the impact on the people she serves— specifically the South L.A. community— has been the most rewarding aspect of her job as a nurse during the pandemic.
Viveros has primarily served the unhoused community in South L.A. by ensuring that they have access to testing and vaccination resources.
“It’s really sad to see that people physically can’t afford to get their medication or get their health needs [met] because there is a problem in the system,” she said.
Viveros and her team travel throughout the community with materials to provide people experiencing homelessness with medical care outside of the hospital. Additionally, the team provides assistance finding resources for housing and obtaining documentation necessary for vaccinations such as IDs and birth certificates.
She says it has been an added challenge to keep a brave face in light of the patients she treats and cases she comes upon.
“This has been mentally and physically challenging because we have to just go out into the field and help patients but always trying to maintain your composure and be strong enough for them so you can take care of them,” she said.
While Viveros is taking to the streets aiming to vaccinate South L.A.’s unhoused population, vaccine disparity has affected residents all over the Los Angeles area.
Harris said that she noticed that Angelenos who were not technically eligible for the vaccine yet were getting vaccinated before those who were. She shared her feelings when she realized that those under the age of 65 were receiving their vaccines before her 73-year-old neighbor who was at higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19.
“I feel like maybe there’s some kind of crack in the system and people are kind of getting in before they should be. Just hearing that was really disheartening,” Harris said.
But, Harris also believes that nurses have the ability to help alleviate these vaccine inequities.
“One of the challenges as a nurse is to be educated about these disparities so that we can help lessen that gap and be able to provide some of that care for these patients that are not getting the proper health care, so I still have a lot to learn,” she said.
Harris recognizes that her awareness of vaccine inequities results from her role in the healthcare industry, but that not all people have direct access to this information and must seek it out independently.
“It’s almost to the point where if you don’t consciously make that choice to read the news or listen to the stories about what’s going on outside of just our own little town you lose it, you miss out on it,” Harris said.
Harris is relieved to see the vaccine making a difference in hospitals so far, and hopes that it will continue to decrease cases in hospitals as more and more people get vaccinated. Even though she said she endured many difficult situations while working on the frontlines, Harris knows nursing will forever be her “calling.”
“You’re not going to always be able to save everybody but if you can leave your shift with one person just even smiling, then that’s it,” Harris said. “That’s enough for me.”