In the first few months of the pandemic, hospital workers were stretched thin and putting their health at risk to treat coronavirus patients.
Local restaurants delivered food for doctors and nurses. Home sewers stitched them colorful masks. Times were tough, but the praise from the community kept them going.
Now 1½ years later, the donations have all but disappeared. The tradition of clanging pots and pans in honor of hospital crews has faded. The stress and risks of the job are the same, but the public cheerleading seems to have declined as pandemic fatigue grows.
As local hospitals face their fourth surge in COVID-19 cases, some Sentara Healthcare workers say keeping morale up is one of the biggest challenges.
Bea Barajas-Williams, a respiratory therapist at Virginia Beach General Hospital, said COVID-19 has dramatically changed her experience with patients. Many used to come into an emergency room in an acute trauma situation when they required intubation.
“Now you’re intubating someone that you know, that you’ve probably said hi to their family members on FaceTime,” she said. “It’s really heartbreaking.”
The delta variant, a more contagious strain of the virus, has fueled the latest wave, which began to drive up hospitalizations last month. A large share of patients are also people with chronic health problems who deferred care during the lockdown.
About 2,100 Virginians are in hospital beds now for confirmed and suspected COVID-19. More than one in four of those patients is in an intensive care unit, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. More than 60% of the ones in intensive care are on ventilators.
Claresa Sanchez, a patient care supervisor at Virginia Beach General Hospital, has the daunting task of helping with admissions and getting patients into beds. She supports the nursing staff and makes sure everyone has what they need before heading into their shifts.
Lately, she’s seen emergency department waits stretch four or five hours.
“ED has been getting crushed — they’re tired,” she said. “We’ve got patients in every little nook and cranny that you can think of.”
Some staff say it has been unbearable to watch people suffer from a disease whose worst consequences are now largely avoidable with vaccines. Health department data show the vast majority of patients who are severely ill or dying have not had COVID-19 shots.
Deaths are being reported at a pace of about 24 per day statewide, according to the Virginia Department of Health on Wednesday.
One of the hardest things Barajas-Williams has witnessed in COVID-19 patients is the loss of independence. In the early phase of the crisis, the majority of her patients were seniors. Now the disease is preying on younger unvaccinated people, many in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
When “they require 100% oxygen, they can no longer get up and go and use the restroom or brush their teeth,” she said. “They have to get somebody in there to help them to use a bedside commode. You know, that’s something that someone who is 40 years old is just not used to doing.”
Lucy Vinson, ICU nurse manager at Norfolk General Hospital, said the life-and-death conversations and decisions weigh on their conscience.
“Do you want us to do chest compressions, or don’t you? Do you want us to put you on a ventilator? Do you want to continue to struggle to breathe, or are you wanting to give up the fight and be made comfortable?” she said. “It’s really difficult, and I can’t even explain it.”
Dr. Michael Genco, chief medical officer for Sentara Obici Hospital in Suffolk, said it’s not just nurses feeling the tension. The pharmacists, physical therapists, maintenance crews and food service employees are struggling because of the way the pandemic has changed how they take care of patients.
“For lots of reasons, now we can’t do it the way we used to,” he said. “It’s that idea of moral distress: We know what we need to do, we just can’t do it because of things that are outside of our control.”
Elisha Sauers, 757-839-4754, email@example.com