Credit: George Danby

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Anne Rundle is a public health nursing supervisor with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

On a bright, chilly morning outside of Portland, a public health nurse is seen visiting a new mother with newborn twins – not in the hospital, but in a hotel room, which is her temporary housing.

On the same day, on an island Down East, another nurse might be delivering medications to someone unable to leave his home. Earlier in the week, nurses in Aroostook County helped an isolated elder who was living in a house that had been condemned. They helped him connect with relatives out of state and find assisted living. On the same day, public health nurses took a ferry to Chebeague Island to provide COVID-19 boosters.

On any given day, anywhere in the state, you may find one of Maine’s public health nurses in an urban hotel caring for a temporary resident, on a rural road visiting an isolated elder, or on an island providing vaccines. But because their work is far from glamorous, it often goes unnoticed. During National Nurses Week, it’s important that they not be missed, and appreciated for the work they do for Maine residents.

For the past two years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, public health nurses worked tirelessly to help communities control the spread of the virus. They helped school districts implement safety protocols, helped towns with mask mandates, brought vaccines to homebound individuals, and provided individual consultation to patients through contact tracing. Their work continues as they have been responsible to organize and staff vaccine clinics around the state.  

But what do public health nurses do when there’s not a pandemic?

“Our nurses are on the street, in homes, seeing people where they’re most comfortable,” said Lynnda Parker, manager of Maine’s Public Health Nursing Program. “This is so important, for example, when we are treating a patient with tuberculosis, who might not have a home or transportation to a medical appointment. Public health nurses meet the patient on their home turf, and thus are able to assess them holistically – understanding the social determinants as well as the physical health.”

At a recent meeting to celebrate Nurses Day, public health nurses came in hiking boots, in cars covered with Maine “mud season” tracks, and bug-splattered windshields. Their trunks were full of resources – as only those who practically live in their cars would have: first aid kits, equipment for a breakdown deep in the woods, cribs for newborns, spare clothes and food for families in need. It’s clear that these nurses are happy to be doing the work that they do, even if it calls for long days on the road, because, as one nurse said: “We meet people where they’re at – in their home, in their community – providing care for the whole person and, often their family members.”

The state of Maine employs 30 public health nurses, who operate under the guidance of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The state is divided into nine districts (eight geographical divisions and the tribal representation). The nurses work with district health liaisons as well as local health officers to represent the health interests of the state in each town. The services they provide are prioritized by the community health needs assessments of each county, as well any public health emergency that arises. Nurses will stay with the client until they are able to discharge them from their service. No insurance is needed, and insurance is not billed for the service, which is provided with state funding.

Public health nurses have provided care to Maine residents for more than 100 years. Nurses are charged with several tasks: providing guidance to new mothers and babies (many are not only nurses but certified lactation consultants); assisting school nurses with the provision of immunizations to students; supporting new Maine residents with appropriate immunizations and services; identifying residents at risk of neglect or abuse and connecting them to resources; providing education and consultation to communities and agencies around health concerns such as substance abuse; to name just a few tasks. These nurses have the unique ability to make an impact on residents in their communities, in the schools and in their homes.

Public health nurses represent the face of Maine CDC in all of Maine’s communities. “Our nurses are the tire meeting the road when it comes to the services that Maine CDC provides to Maine people,” Nirav Shah, head of the Maine CDC, said it to the Public Health Nursing Program team earlier this month.

You can contact public health nurses in your district by calling the referral line at 1- 888-644-1130 or going to https://www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/. Anyone can ask for services or refer a patient.