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5 nurses share their pandemic holiday plans —  and their hopes people take the virus seriously

‘It pains me because I think when this all dies down and we get back to Mass, there will be a lot of empty pews,’ said one nurse, who has worked at a hard-hit nursing home throughout the pandemic.

(RNS) — For months, public health experts in the U.S. have warned that the run of holidays from Thanksgiving to New Year’s could lead to a weighty spike in coronavirus cases. Nurses, heralded as heroes but often overworked and underpaid, face the deadly reality of that spike in hospitals and nursing homes all across the country — all while missing their own families, worrying about their patients and making their own decisions about how they can worship and gather. 

Religion News Service talked with five nurses about how they celebrated, or are celebrating, the holidays. None plans to attend in-person services, even in states that allow them, and all said they wish people understood the seriousness of the disease — and the government made it easier for people to stay home.

Katrina: Northeast Center for Rehabilitation and Brain Injury, Ulster County, New York

Most years during the Christmas season, Katrina Colleton works 60-plus-hour weeks. Still, she’d find the time to cook during the days leading up to Christmas Eve, when she’d go to services at a local Baptist church and then have such a big family dinner — her grandmother had 14 children, and almost all of them had children, too — that people would have to come in two shifts.

This year, she said she’s not bothering to look for services that would take place on Zoom. “I’m just hoping we can have a little Christmas that is just nice,” she explained. She’ll have a small dinner with her immediate family and her mom, in line with the state’s guidelines banning gatherings over 10 people.

Colleton worries about exhausted morale among her co-workers. “Christmas bonuses, Christmas parties — they mean a lot to people,” she said. This year, as in other years, the facility put up Christmas trees, and as unit manager Colleton decorated her unit.

But even more so she worries about her patients, who are so isolated they will only see the decorations and trees when they are helped to the showers.

The activities staff “goes around doing Christmas carols and making ornaments and cards to send to their families, but that still doesn’t replace the fact you haven’t seen your family,” she said.

“Imagine being a patient and just sitting in a room: They bring coffee by, they bring meals, you get to take a shower. … Think about what happens to patients’ mentality, what it’s like to be so secluded, and what that’s like for their psychosocial health.”

Colleton is concerned that a rise in COVID cases after Christmas will prolong this isolation: “I know people love their families and haven’t seen them for months because of quarantine, but you can’t see your Aunty Beth with a lung issue. … And as health care providers, any contact we have is a risk to our patients, period.”

Rebecca: Washington, D.C.

A bedside nurse who has worked at a D.C.-area hospital for the past two years — and wished to stay anonymous because of her workplace’s media policy — told RNS she was raised both culturally Catholic and Jewish. Rebecca never attended religious services of either type, but her winters were always busy with celebrations and get-togethers on both sides of the family.

“We’re not doing anything this year,” she said. “No traveling. No big events with family. Anything considered tradition or status quo in the past is absolutely not happening.”

Rather, Rebecca is working on Christmas and Christmas Eve. She lit candles and sang prayers one night for Hanukkah with her family over Zoom.

But she wasn’t in much of a mood for celebration. There is currently COVID on all units of her hospital, and there was an edge to her voice when she told RNS, “I truly hope anyone understands the gravity of their decision-making and how a small event can truly be catastrophic in nature.”

Chelsea: Cooper University Hospital, New Jersey

Out of all the holidays, Chelsea Hunter, a Christian, loves Christmas the most. She loves seeing the Christmas lights outside, and now that she has children, she loves the holiday even more, seeing it anew through their eyes.

Every Sunday, they go to the Connect Church, which she likes because no one has to get dressed up. “It’s come as you are. They’re accepting of everyone,” she explains. And there’s a live band. She misses it.

“Since the pandemic began our church went completely virtual because everyone felt it was the safest thing to do. Now we watch a livestream of the service on Sundays.” That’s what they’ll do on Christmas Eve, too.

“We will really miss attending church in person,” she says. “It’s just a different vibe. However, they have done a good job with their online service and we are grateful they made that possible.”

Because Hunter also misses her family badly, it was difficult to make decisions about how they were celebrating this year. They landed on a small get-together with her parents, two of her siblings, and her husband and kids. She feels comfortable with that because all her family members work from home, so they have limited contact with the outside world.

Work has been hard. “We are the ones who spend the most time with the patients. The job can be really rewarding, but also both physically and emotionally taxing at times.”

To feel “joyful,” she and her children take walks outside at night to see the lights.

Kathie: Retired in New Jersey

Kathie Goldy retired from her job as a nurse at Pineland Learning Center, a special-ed private school in New Jersey, just before the onset of the pandemic.

When asked about the holidays, she is matter-of-fact: “We should be more conservative and wait until next year to celebrate as we normally do.”

But since pandemic shutdowns began, she’s been experimenting with different kinds of celebrations — all of them over Zoom. A lot of her friends’ churches have put their services online, and she’s been attending, learning about all the differences between them, and searching for more services online.

The main thing she’s learned? “Church is just a building,” she explains. And she doesn’t understand why there’s so much division between the different denominations.

Christmas this year will just be her and her husband, just like on Thanksgiving. “I don’t want to put anyone’s life in jeopardy.”

She’ll attend an online service — she just isn’t sure which one yet.

Tara: Nursing home in Michigan

Although Tara M. Pendlum lives in Indianapolis, earlier this year she went to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to help out at a nursing home that was swamped with COVID-19, losing 13 residents and all of the staff falling ill. She left her two daughters and her husband back at home.

This wasn’t out of character. Pendlum is Catholic — “actively Catholic,” she says, adding that her kids go to Catholic school — and even before the pandemic, she usually volunteered to work on Christmas while her kids and husband went to Mass.

“We have a tree and little gifts, and we always talk about the reason for the season. We try to keep it focused around Christ,” she told RNS. “All hospitals generally have a priest who says Mass on Easter and Christmas, so I would attend those.”

“This year,” Pendlum said, “I’m going to have to find a Zoom service.” Her husband and children are coming up from Indianapolis to join her at the cabin where she’s been staying. “We’ll celebrate here and read the Gospel … and sing some of our favorite hymns.”

It’s been difficult, because “at the church (in Indianapolis) I fellowship with, some of them don’t see this or the high rates as a problem.”

Pendlum does. Indiana currently has a 24.3% seven-day positivity rate. “I love midnight Mass, but we’re going to miss it this year because of the positivity rate.”

Making that decision wasn’t even a question. “It pains me because I think when this all dies down and we get back to Mass, there will be a lot of empty pews.”