'We never had a chance to take a breath': 8 nurses on latest COVID-19 surge

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Amid the summer 2021 COVID-19 surge, nurses are battling the virus under different circumstances than previous waves. They are grappling with exacerbated labor shortages as well as the delta variant and exhaustion that has taken a toll over the last year and a half. Additionally, hospitals and health systems are seeing younger COVID-19 patients during a time when vaccines are available for people age 12 and older.  

Becker's asked eight nurses from organizations nationwide to share the one word they'd use to describe the latest surge and how it compares to prior ones. Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length. They are presented alphabetically. 

Karrie Gricius, RN. Nurse at Baptist Health Floyd (New Albany, Ind.) 

One word to describe the latest surge: 'Defeated.' Whether you were at the bedside or in a staff support role, the feeling of defeat and emotional fatigue has taken a toll on us all.

How this surge is different: Staffing is a real and palpable issue going into this next surge of the pandemic. Many nurses that went through the first are making the decision to leave bedside care or the profession completely out of exhaustion and fear. New nurses are entering a workforce with little clinical experience in the middle of a pandemic with experienced nurses just trying to get by most days. I feel healthcare doesn't have the support it had at the beginning. The public has lost faith in our system, and that is going to be difficult to win back. We are seeing younger populations suffer; we didn't see this level of devastation in the initial wave of patients. Most of all, we are tired. The first wave took a lot from us as healthcare workers, and now it is back, and we never had a chance to take a breath.

Brooke Hanger, RN. Nurse at Baptist Health Floyd (New Albany, Ind.) 

One word to describe the latest surge: I would say the one word to describe this latest surge is 'heartbreaking.' Honestly, I cannot really describe what is happening with one word. Heartbroken is just what I feel at the end of every single day.

How this surge is different:  We now have something that can protect our community against COVID 19.  Every single one of our patients in the ICU on the ventilator is not vaccinated. We are seeing much younger people become ill and losing their lives to this virus. Last week we lost a patient younger than myself. To know that they are leaving young children behind breaks my heart. We are in a nursing shortage, a crisis. When COVID-19 showed up in March of 2020, the community looked out for us. We were heroes fighting this fight with a group of people that supported us. Now it feels like we are the enemy. I personally advocate on my social media platform for vaccines and masking. The community, the nation have made this virus so political. It's not. It is so real. We also canceled nonemergent surgeries. We had extra helping hands. Now we are begging for nurses more than ever. One of these patients on the ventilator takes a lot of work. I am happy that our hospital has recognized that we need all the help we can get and are offering surge contracts. I am mad, I am frustrated, I am tired.  I will continue to fight to save those that we can, I just wish the community would do their part.

Liz Lavelle, MSN, RN. Director of Emergency Services at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg (Fla.)

One word to describe the latest surge: 'Intense and heart-wrenching' are the words that I would use to describe this latest surge. In the first surge we were seeing a lot more elderly and patients with comorbidities coming in sick, which is what we were prepared for emotionally and mentally. This surge has been a lot more of the younger, healthier demographic. We have hospitalized firefighters, police officers, healthcare workers and others that we work with on a day-to-day basis which has made it pull harder on the emotional side of nursing. Seeing patients that are also friends, colleagues, pregnant women and other young people takes a toll on the team. Our team is unbelievably strong, and they continue to push through and take incredible care of each patient, but the emotional toll is evident.

How this surge is different: This wave is different from last year in that we are dealing with higher volumes on top of the COVID surge. The world has returned somewhat back to normal operations, so we have increased ED volumes on top of COVID surges. We have seen a higher volume of COVID admissions in this wave than in the prior waves, and the majority of these patients are unvaccinated. Also, during the last year, we have seen a significant population growth in Florida which has added to our overall volumes. We are also seeing the younger demographic, which is different than we saw last year when everyone was in quarantine. The younger, sicker admissions are highly correlating with unvaccinated patients. 

Jessica McMaine, RN. Medical-surgical nurse at Baptist Health Richmond (Ky.)

One word to describe the latest surge: 'Humbling.' I know that might seem peculiar to some, but this is the word that comes to mind when I reflect on the pandemic. The sheer volume of critically ill patients we have cared for recently has been a humbling experience in itself. These patients are seen at their most vulnerable, and they are desperately relying on us to meet all their emotional and physical needs. We have to put them first and give our all to the patients, and at times it may not be enough to save their lives. However, we must remain strong and control our emotions in order to give our all to the next ill patient that is in need of our care. This is a very humbling experience which has created within me an even deeper compassion, empathy and connection to others in my life. One that has left me forever changed.

How this surge is different: The major difference I have noticed is the extreme emotional and physical exhaustion healthcare workers are experiencing this time around. There are more critically ill patients, and caring holistically for them is becoming very complex. The amount of time and resources that is needed to properly care for these patients is something that we just don't have. We are working with a reduced staff, and all surrounding hospitals, including ours, are at full capacity. Some of these patients need to be transferred to a higher level of care, but when there are no beds available, this creates a greater challenge for the primary nurse to continue to provide the services needed.

Debi Pasley, MS, RN. System Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer at Christus Health (Irving, Texas)

One word to describe the latest surge: 'Resilience.' Answering the call to work in healthcare is evidence of our heart for service. Service is not always easy because it requires an outpouring of ourselves. The continuation of this pandemic through a second year tests the strength of our resilience.

How this surge is different: This surge is testing all of us a bit more. But we are pacing ourselves, and together we will see this through. Through innovations, being purposeful and caring, we are doing best for ourselves and best in our care for our communities. The work is clearly in front of us all, and the need for nurses remains critical. Christus is experiencing the same challenges with staffing that most health systems in the nation have struggled with since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we are in a much better position because even prior to the staffing concerns around this COVID surge we identified contract staff members to deploy to help out and began developing a mobility team to support our most critical needs. We have commitments from the states of Texas and Louisiana and federal assistance. Nurses, respiratory therapists and paramedics have been deployed in Texas and Louisiana to support our ability to care for the communities with greatest needs. We have amazing teams who are deeply committed to the communities we serve. COVID 19 doesn't change our passion to deliver on our mission to extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.

Saaja Rayford, BSN, RN. Nurse at Beaumont Hospital, Troy (Mich.)

One word to describe the latest surge: 'Heartbreaking.' It's heartbreaking to see the number of patients with COVID rising again.

How this surge is different: Nurses everywhere are tired: emotionally, physically and mentally. As nurses at the bedside, we are essentially the placeholders for family, friends and loved ones. We are still fighting for our patients, like we always have, but the main difference now is that we have a vaccine that can save lives. People have the choice to take that vaccine to protect themselves and others. While the vaccine does not prevent COVID, it does lessen the severity of symptoms and the likelihood of hospitalization and death. I hope people do their research about the vaccine and understand that it is safe, and we all need to work together to end this pandemic. The vaccine is our way out.

Stacie Sennett, RN. Intensive care unit nurse at Baptist Health Richmond (Ky.)

One word to describe the latest surge: One word I would use to describe the latest surge would be 'exhausting.'

How this surge is different: This surge is different from the last in a couple different ways, including staffing ratios, utilization of nurses from other units to create a team nursing dynamic, and the critical ICU patients being younger than before. As the number of COVID patients in our hospital continues to increase, we are having to accommodate care for inpatient admissions outside of our own ICU walls. With these additional inpatients, we also have had to utilize nurses from management and other positions as support staff. We have seen more critical ICU COVID patients age 30-40 with this surge, unlike with the previous surge. This is all a challenge, as many nurses have not had time to recover from the last year.

Hannah Watkins, RN. Nurse at Baptist Health Floyd (New Albany, Ind.)

One word to describe the latest surge: 'Frustration.' The fact that this surge is preventable with a vaccine and masking and people refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to mask up is frustrating to healthcare workers.

How this surge is different: I think this surge is making younger patients sicker than the previous strain. I feel like more patients in general are coming in sicker with COVID Delta variant. This surge is different because I feel that we do not have the support from the community or the public that we had in the first round. This surge is far more frustrating for those reasons.

 

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