The number of hospitalizations from the coronavirus reached nearly 77,000 on Tuesday — a new record. For the country's nurses, the surge is taking a heavy toll, as they grow exhausted, worried and frustrated by disinformation and disregard for safety.
Some eight months into the crisis, nurses have been taking to social media, describing grim scenes at work and imploring Americans to stay safe as hospitals reach capacity limits. Nationwide, hospitalizations have been steadily climbing, with the Midwest and the South hit especially hard. In the last week alone, each has seen a roughly 35% spike in hospitalizations, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Amid an outbreak in El Paso, Texas, nurse Ashley Bartholomew decided to leave the job for the sake of her mental health. She had been treating people who were very sick with COVID and on Twitter, she described trying to convince even them that it was a real virus.
"It reminds me of like when I was in the military. It's kind of like well, did I just quit in the middle of a deployment? Did I quit in the middle of the war? Like that's almost how it feels," Bartholomew told NPR's Morning Edition. "It's also impossible for nurses to fight the pandemic on misinformation and also fight the pandemic of COVID at the same time."
I’m an RN in El Paso and was recently transferred from the OR to COVID ICU.— Ashley Bartholomew, BSN, RN (@TheBlondeRN) November 16, 2020
I resigned from my job last week and I’ve been asked several times, “What was the breaking point?” I don’t know a specific one, but I’ll share this: a thread 🧵1/
In Nebraska, new daily coronavirus cases have nearly doubled in the last two weeks.
"We're seeing the worst of the worst and these patients are dying, and you go home at the end of the night and you drive by bars and you drive by restaurants and they're packed full and people aren't wearing masks," said Michelle Cavanaugh, a nurse at the Nebraska Medicine Medical Center in Omaha. "I wish that I could get people to see COVID through my eyes."
"I have seen so many emergent intubations. I've seen people more sick than I've ever seen in my life." COVID ICU nurse Lacie Gooch hopes you will listen. @UNMC_ID @unmc @Prof_Lowe @DanielWJohnson9 @KellyCawcuttMD @JamesLawler11 pic.twitter.com/Sclrap3vlQ— Nebraska Medicine (@NebraskaMed) November 17, 2020
In Minnesota, ICU nurse Mary Turner worries about running out of stamina and supplies, including personal protective equipment.
"It'd be like a death sentence, and I know that sounds dramatic, but it is truly the case that the frontline health care workers every day are risking their lives," she said.
At the Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wis., nearly every hospital bed has been full for the past three weeks. Pam White, the chief nursing officer there, says it's weighing on her staff.
"It is real. I see it in the eyes and hear it in the voices of our nurses every day," she said.
White manages roughly 2,300 nursing department members in the Mayo Clinic's hospital system in northwest Wisconsin. It includes five hospitals and 14 clinics. With some hospital staff quarantining due to exposure, the hospital has brought in help from the Mayo Clinics in Arizona and Rochester, Minn. She has even put her own scrubs on to help out.
"It's all hands on deck," she said.
With visitors barred from visiting COVID patients, comforting them is left to White's staff. She recalls a nurse who told her about arranging a call to a patient's wife before he went to the ICU. The nurse wondered if that might be the last time he'd be able to speak to his wife again.
"Those are difficult calls to make, and we're doing that over and over again," White said. "I see it in our nurses as they walk out of rooms with tears in their eyes. It's heartbreaking."
As the holiday season approaches and Americans consider joining their family and friends to celebrate, White suggests gathering virtually and creatively instead.
"I've said to my own family, 'I'm sorry we can't get together.' This is one holiday. Let's make it through this holiday so we can have future holidays."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, we've been listening in recent days to people managing the explosion of COVID cases.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And today, we hear from nurses.
INSKEEP: Ashley Bartholomew (ph) in El Paso, Texas, decided to walk away from the job for her mental health.
ASHLEY BARTHOLOMEW: It reminds me of, like, when I was in the military. It's kind of like, well, did I just - did I quit in the middle of a deployment? You know, did I quit in the middle of the war? Like, that's almost how it feels.
MARTIN: Bartholomew describes a disturbing experience. She treated people who were very sick with COVID and had to try to convince even them that it was a real virus.
BARTHOLOMEW: It's also impossible for nurses to fight the pandemic on misinformation and also fight the pandemic of COVID at the same time.
INSKEEP: Now, in Nebraska, new daily coronavirus cases have more than doubled in the past two weeks. Michelle Cavanaugh (ph) is a nurse at the Nebraska Medicine Medical Center in Omaha.
MICHELLE CAVANAUGH: We're seeing the worst of the worst. And these patients are dying. And you go home at the end of the night, and you drive by bars, and you drive by restaurants - sorry, it is emotional - and they're packed full, and people aren't wearing masks. And, you know, I wish that I could get people to see COVID through my eyes.
MARTIN: And in Minnesota, ICU nurse Mary Turner (ph) worries about running out of stamina and supplies, including personal protective equipment.
MARY TURNER: It feels like a death sentence. And I know that sounds dramatic, but it is truly the case that the front-line health care workers every day are risking their lives.
INSKEEP: OK. Now let's go 100 miles to the east of there to neighboring Wisconsin, where every bed at the Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire, Wis., is full. Pam White is the chief nursing officer there and is on the line. Good morning to you.
PAM WHITE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What do you think about when you hear those stories of nurses in other places across the country?
WHITE: It's very similar to what we're experiencing here right now. It is real. And I see it in the eyes and hear it in the voices of our nurses every day.
INSKEEP: When we say every bed is full, would you just explain what that means on a day-to-day basis?
WHITE: Sure. Our census situation is always fluid. One day, we can be full. Of course, there are always discharges. But there are people waiting for beds. So that changes day to day. But on that day when we reported that we were full, we were full. Every bed was full.
INSKEEP: And that has gone up and down a little bit. But how are you able to manage the flow of patients? And do you have the people to do it all?
WHITE: That's the challenge with this situation. Managing flow of patients is a day-to-day operational plan. But this is different. We have staff that are out related to exposures in quarantine. So then we have to look at alternative measures. We've brought staff from Arizona Mayo Clinic, staff from Rochester. Staff are working many, many hours. I, too, put on my scrubs, and I'm helping. So it's all-hands-on-deck. And we pull staff that we can - continue to provide the excellent care - in from wherever we can get that.
INSKEEP: I want to just stop and underline, as we sometimes have before, the difference for people in the medical profession from other professions. If I, in my work, were exposed to COVID, I could be sent home for 14 days. But isn't that actually hard in a hospital setting because people are constantly exposed and they have to keep working?
WHITE: Correct. And fortunately, in the hospital setting, we have PPE and other measures that we can protect ourselves. It's community spread, where if employees are around the community, they're exposed to family members or they're in a business or some other factor, that's when they're exposed. And you're right, we need nurses in the hospital. There are things that can be done virtually in a clinic or ambulatory setting. But taking care of patients certainly cannot be done virtually.
INSKEEP: What are the biggest challenges as you run up to 100% capacity on some days and pretty close to it other days?
WHITE: I think the biggest challenge is really wanting to serve the needs of the patients, the patients that need and want the care that we provide on a day-to-day basis. And I think the challenge for me is to help our staff manage as well. As a leader, I want to be there by our staff. These are difficult situations for our staff to walk through with these patients because we have no visitors. And that creates a whole different situation in the hospital.
INSKEEP: Would you describe what you mean by that? No visitors. Nobody can be seen. Nobody can be comforted or reassured except by the medical staff.
WHITE: Exactly that. And so I recall very vividly speaking with one of the nurses who said that she had an experience that she had never had. There was a patient who was deteriorating, needed to be going to the ICU. And he asked to speak to his wife, who obviously couldn't be present with him. And so she arranged that call not knowing if this was the last time he would ever be able to speak with his wife again or if he was going to be placed on a ventilator. Those are difficult calls to make. And we're doing that over and over again. I see it in our nurses as they walk out of rooms with tears in their eyes. It's heartbreaking.
INSKEEP: I'd like to ask about the opposite perception by some people that this isn't happening at all. We heard earlier of the nurse who decided to walk off the job. And part of her experience was trying to convince sick people that they were really sick with the virus, that this was not some kind of conspiracy. What do you think about the flood of disinformation and misinformation about this pandemic?
WHITE: I will speak honestly. It's frustrating when you're in the community and you see people that are not masked. It's challenging. If you drive by our hospital, it looks like a normal situation. But I can guarantee people it's not a normal situation. And when you have hundreds of people in your organization suffering from a terrible virus and dying - we're experiencing families dying. That's real. And when I see people not following the masking or social distancing or large gatherings, that is frustrating because we're working very hard in the hospitals to keep people alive.
INSKEEP: What are you thinking about heading into the holidays then?
WHITE: That's a challenging time. And my heart rate goes up. We're really asking people to celebrate holidays virtually, in a different way, more creatively. I've said to my own family, I'm sorry. We can't get together. This is one holiday. Let's make it through this holiday so we can have future holidays.
INSKEEP: All right. Pam White, chief nursing officer at the Mayo Clinic Health System in Northwest Wisconsin, thank you so much.
WHITE: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "STREET DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.