Travel nursing was already complicated to begin with, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has only made it even more complex. Some nurses were swamped with assignments while others’ work dried up. Moving became vastly more difficult, and hospital best practices change seemingly every day. In the midst of this, travel nurses are more important than ever, and they’re helping to fill in the gaps at overwhelmed facilities in COVID-19 hot spots. Learning how to navigate COVID-19 as a travel nurse is essential.

Before you pack up your cotton scrubs and comfortable nursing shoes, here are seven things you need to know about navigating COVID-19 as a travel nurse:

Think carefully about where you want to be

Under ordinary circumstances, many travel nurses’ decisions are motivated by where they want to live and what amenities the location has to offer. However many of those amenities remain shut down, another important factor remains: pay. Higher salaries are now being driven by the corona virus hot spots, and fluctuate accordingly. A nurse who can’t find work in one state with minimal cases might make $3,000 or $4,000 a week in an area that’s spiking. But the trade-offs aren’t worth the risk for everyone. In this time of uncertainty, many nurses would understandably rather be closer to home in case a loved one falls sick. Weigh your priorities and let that guide your decision of which assignment to choose next.

Understand what you’re walking into

A new travel nursing assignment is stressful even in the best of times, and COVID-19 has only heightened the pressure. Many hospitals were trying to figure things out on the fly earlier this year, and best practice advice was changing daily. While facilities will have the benefit of some experience come cold and flu season this fall, expect there to be unforeseen changes and challenges no matter what assignment you take. Facilities might experience personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages again, and patient intake may fluctuate dramatically. The “new normal” will vary from hospital to hospital and continue to evolve as the pandemic goes on.

Be prepared for cancellations

In one of the most ironic turns of events, early on in the pandemic ICUs were overrun with patients while other departments saw patient load drop dramatically, or had to temporarily shut down due to the suspension of elective procedures. Travel nurses who didn’t have in-demand specialties suddenly found themselves without assignments—and even nurses who did work in the ICU found themselves sometimes switching assignments at the last minute. While it may seem counterintuitive, this could happen again, especially if there’s another spike in COVID-19 cases that forces hospitals to suspend elective procedures again.

Have backup housing in place

Due to those cancellations, you should always have backup housing plans in place, for both the short- and long-term. Even if your agency can find you a new assignment right away, you might have some additional transition time and need somewhere to stay after your current assignment ends. In a worst-case scenario, you might be out of an assignment indefinitely and find yourself having to procure housing for a longer-term situation. If your agency doesn’t handle this for you, make sure you know the cancellation and refund policy for any accommodations that you book so that you can get your money back if need be.

Limit exposure during your move

Even in the best of times, moving exposes you to quite a few people who might be sick with something, COVID-19 or otherwise. As a travel nurse, you need to be concerned with picking up something from others and infecting other people in case you are a carrier. You might want to cluster your assignments in a certain geographic area to lower your exposure rate. Try to plan ahead as much as possible and limit stops along the way. Bring your own food and beverages as well as plenty of wipes and hand sanitizer. Wear a mask if you do need to leave your vehicle and sanitize your hands before and after exiting your car. It may seem like a lot of precautions, but better safe than sorry!

Be familiar with your employer’s COVID policies

Once you arrive, you should familiarize yourself with any COVID-19 specific policies that your facility might have in place. For example, staff working in COVID and non-COVID units might enter and leave through different doors. These practices might change throughout the course of your assignment, so stay on top of them and be flexible as policies evolve. Bear in mind that these requirements are likely to vary from both employer to employer and in between different geographic areas, so if you’ve been moving around a lot, be ready to learn a lot very quickly.

Know your own limits

If you’ve got an in-demand specialty, it may be tempting to accept every travel nursing assignment that comes your way, especially if the money is (really, really) good and you have bills you’re trying to pay. While this is totally understandable, it’s simply not possible to keep working non-stop without burning out. Travel nursing was already stressful enough before coronavirus, and the constant uncertainty and fear of catching a potentially deadly disease is really weighing on people (understandably!). If you need to take a short break between assignments, do it. It’s far better to take a shorter rest now than to try to push through and then leave nursing for a really long hiatus.

Take care of your patients and yourself with these seven tips if you’re working as a travel nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic. As our understanding of the virus continues to evolve, stay on top of the medical news so you’ll know what to expect at your next travel nursing assignment. No matter where they live, your patients will be grateful you’re there to help them!

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