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San Diego Nurses Care For COVID Patients By Day, Protesters By Night

Registered nurses Laura Chechel (left) and Christina Kelley (right) walk in front of Danielle Winterström Åke, a registered nurse and graduate nursing student during a demonstration for social justice through the city of San Diego, June 4, 2020.
Tarryn Mento
Registered nurses Laura Chechel (left) and Christina Kelley (right) walk in front of Danielle Winterström Åke, a registered nurse and graduate nursing student during a demonstration for social justice through the city of San Diego, June 4, 2020.
The group has become a regular presence at ongoing protests over racial injustice to provide licensed care for any injuries and demonstrate support for community health.

A team of registered nurses prepared for their jobs on a recent weekday afternoon by assembling the new gas masks they ordered online. The respirators aren't for their work in local hospitals but on the streets; The group has become a regular presence at ongoing protests over racial injustice to provide licensed care for any injuries and demonstrate support for community health.

Critical care nurse Christina Kelley launched the task force after witnessing safety concerns during a downtown San Diego demonstration against police brutality in late May. Police used flashbangs, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, which sent masses of protesters running through the urban area.

“I just saw all of these hazards," said Kelley, who holds a doctorate in nursing practice. "People could trip, they could fall. I saw a head trauma — we didn't actually see head trauma, but you could see that in the making.”

She feared the sheer size of the crowds and the road closures meant emergency response teams couldn’t reach someone if they were in need. She rallied her colleagues, many of whom are already caring for COVID patients in San Diego and some are also volunteering in Tijuana, to put licensed professionals on the ground at as many demonstrations as they knew about. They’re now invited directly by organizers who are often in their teens and twenties.

"As a nurse, we can't just take care of people that are in the hospital. We're also responsible for the community that we serve, the population that live within the communities that we serve," Kelley said, "and so it’s really important that we make ourselves available not just for people that are admitted to the hospital but for people that are on the street in need of care.”

Video: San Diego Nurses Care For COVID Patients By Day, Protesters By Night

To the group's relief, injuries have been minor: dehydration, heat exhaustion and tumbles from bikes or skateboards. But the nurses' backpacks are prepared for any situation with supplies they provide themselves — from suture kits and burn cream to hand sanitizer and masks. Kelley said they've distributed hundreds of the coverings to keep people safe during the pandemic.

The regional nursing task force also alerted the San Diego Police Department in a letter that it would be present at the demonstrations. SDPD did not respond to a KPBS request for comment. The American Nursing Association, California chapter or ANA-C endorsed the local group and transformed the letter to SDPD into a template for other medical professionals that may want to form a similar team.

Christina Kelley gestures to her pack of supplies as ANA/C San Diego Regional Task Force members Nicole Ward, Trisha Weers and Danisha Jenkins look on, June 10, 2020.
Tarryn Mento
Christina Kelley gestures to her pack of supplies as ANA/C San Diego Regional Task Force members Nicole Ward, Trisha Weers and Danisha Jenkins look on, June 10, 2020.

Laura Chechel, a member of the local group known as ANA-C San Diego Regional Task Force, said the licensed professionals walk behind demonstrators not only to provide them care but also to support the fight against racism. Nurses have an obligation to social justice to reduce health disparities, according to the ANA's code of ethics.

"When you say you’re a nurse people sort of listen to what you have to say and you need to get out there and you need to speak up for what’s right," Chechel said.

A recent march in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood included the daughter of registered nurse and task force member Nicole Ward. Kiara Ward, 19, could provide support as a trained lifeguard but said she also wanted to participate in the demonstration.

"I’m a cosplayer so I get a lot of hate because of my skin color, I often get called the n-word a lot so I want to protest because I feel like I have a right to exist without getting hated on," she said.

Demonstrators have marched against that kind of injustice for weeks in San Diego. An early June protest drew thousands in the streets on an hours-long trek through the city. When a young woman collapsed, the sea of people and location made it difficult for city emergency responders to reach her. Kelley and the task force were just behind her and immediately rushed in.

The ANA/C San Diego Regional Task Force responds to a woman who fell during a demonstration for social justice in the city of San Diego, June 4, 2020.
Tarryn Mento
The ANA/C San Diego Regional Task Force responds to a woman who fell during a demonstration for social justice in the city of San Diego, June 4, 2020.

San Diego Nurses Care For COVID Patients By Day, Protesters By Night
Listen to this story by Tarryn Mento.