Death Is The 'New Norm': Virus Exacts Personal Toll On Workers

Tim Moran

ACROSS AMERICA — For nurses in hard-hit California hospitals, death has become the new normal.

“Just today we had two deaths on this unit. And that’s pretty much the norm,” Caroline Brandenburger told The Associated Press. Brandenburger works on the COVID-19 unit at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, south of Los Angeles. “I usually see one to two every shift."

The loss of life has exacted a personal toll on nurses like Brandenburger, and most aren't likely to see the pressure lift in the coming weeks. On Friday, the United States saw a record number of cases reported in a single day — nearly 302,000, according to a Washington Post database. This came a day after the country saw its deadliest day of the pandemic.

California avoided surging cases for months, but now the virus is raging out of control.

The state, which is the nation's most populous with nearly 40 million residents, has seen more than 2.5 million confirmed infections. Only Arizona tops California in cases per resident, The AP reported.

A surge following Halloween and Thanksgiving produced record hospitalizations in California and other states. More than 132,000 people were hospitalized in the United States on Thursday, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

And now, the most seriously ill of those patients are dying in unprecedented numbers. “They fight every day, and they struggle to breathe every day even with tons of oxygen. And then you just see them die," Brandenburger said. “They just die."

The nurses at St. Joseph Hospital illustrate the toll that comes with the work.

“This past week has been probably the hardest week for me physically and emotionally," Donna Rottschafer, a nurse in the COVID-19 unit, told The AP. “I’ve been here 21 years, and I’ve seen more people pass away in the last week — in the past couple weeks really — than almost like combined in all of my career as a nurse."

Read more via The Associated Press

The Latest

As rising coronavirus cases and deaths send states on a mission to speed up vaccination campaigns, President-elect Joe Biden indicated support for releasing nearly all available COVID-19 doses when he takes office in 12 days, according to a CNN report.

The move would break with the Trump administration's strategy of holding back half of U.S. vaccine production to ensure second doses are available.

Releasing all doses could accelerate the pace at which people receive the first shot.

Biden's plan came after a group of governors wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Operation Warp Speed Chief Operating Officer Gen. Gustave Perna pressing the federal government to distribute "reserved doses" of the vaccine to states that need them.

In New Jersey, one of the first Americans to get a dose of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech has died, but Pfizer has said the death was unrelated to the vaccine.

Gregory Michael, a 56-year-old from New Jersey, died earlier this week in Florida. He took the first dose of the vaccine on Dec. 18, according to reports.

In a social media post, Michael's wife said the "very healthy" 56-year-old found a "strong set of petechiae" on his feet and hands three days after getting his first dose of the vaccine.

"He was a pro-vaccine advocate … that is why he got it himself," she said, alleging that the vaccine was connected to his death.

Pfizer acknowledged Michael's death, and will continue an investigation into it.

"It is a highly unusual clinical case of severe thrombocytopenia, a condition that decreases the body's ability to clot blood and stop internal bleeding, the New York-based drugmaker said in a statement. "We are actively investigating this case, but we don't believe at this time that there is any direct connection to the vaccine."

The B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant that originated in the United Kingdom was found in another two states on Thursday, with one case reported in Pennsylvania and two in Connecticut. That made seven states having detected the variant as of Thursday.

The person in Pennsylvania who tested positive with the new strain, which is believed to be more contagious, had known international exposure, officials in the Keystone State said. The two in Connecticut both traveled recently — one to New York and one to Ireland. Previous variant cases reported in states such as California, New York and Florida have involved people with no recent travel history, suggesting community transmission has already begun.

Health experts have warned that there is no robust system to identify mutations like the one that has already spread significantly in the U.K.

Researchers only perform genome sequencing, a method that definitively spots the variant, on fewer than 3,000 of the 1.4 million people who test positive for the virus a week, according to a report from The New York Times.

However, new research suggests that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine can protect against the mutation found in the UK as well as another more contagious variant found in South Africa.

Pfizer teamed with researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston for laboratory tests to see if the mutation affected its vaccine’s ability to do so.

According to The Associated Press, they used blood samples from 20 people who received the vaccine, made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, during a large study of the shots. Antibodies from those vaccine recipients successfully fended off the virus in lab dishes, according to the study posted late Thursday on an online site for researchers.

Meanwhile, some Americans also are still awaiting their latest one-time $600 stimulus payment — part of the second coronavirus economic relief bill passed before the new year — but there may be hope for yet another payment soon.

President-elect Joe Biden said this week, while campaigning in two Georgia runoff elections, that $2,000 coronavirus payments would come "immediately" should Democrats the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff unseat the two incumbent Republicans, thus giving the party control in the Senate.

Warnock and Ossoff both won their races, and Biden is set to take office as America's 46th president come Jan. 20.

On Friday, new figures from the Labor Department shows that United States employers shed jobs last month for the first time since the height of the pandemic in April. About 140,000 jobs were lost, The AP reported, clear evidence the economy is faltering as the viral pandemic tightens its grip on consumers and businesses.

At the same time, the unemployment rate stayed at 6.7 percent, the first time it hasn't fallen since April.

A person wears a mask as he checks his mobile phone outside the temporary closed "HVY Industry," an inclusive training gym, under a mural reading " We Got this LA," in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
A person wears a mask as he checks his mobile phone outside the temporary closed "HVY Industry," an inclusive training gym, under a mural reading " We Got this LA," in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Newest Numbers

At least 3,502 deaths and 301,730 new cases of coronavirus were reported in the United States as of 6 p.m. ET Friday, according to a Washington Post database. The Post's reporting shows that over the past week, new daily cases increased by 19.1 percent, new daily deaths rose by 19.1 percent and new coronavirus-related hospitalizations increased by 5.4 percent.

Currently, more than 132,370 people are hospitalized with a coronavirus-related illness in the United States, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

As of Friday, 47 states and Puerto Rico remained above the positive testing rate recommended by the World Health Organization to safely reopen. Only Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska, and the District of Columbia are currently below that rate. To safely reopen, the WHO recommends states remain at 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days.

As of Friday evening, the United States had reported more than 21.8 million cases and more than 368,000 deaths from COVID-19-related illnesses, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Stay up to date on the latest coronavirus news via The New York Times or Washington Post.

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This article originally appeared on the Across America Patch