As pandemic enters its second year, exhausted health care workers are wary of what comes next

·Senior Producer/Reporter
·7 min read

Following a record nationwide surge in early January for hospitalizations from COVID-19, which has so far infected over 26 million Americans and killed more that 444,000, health care workers at U.S. hospitals are speaking out about the toll of serving on the front lines of the pandemic.

Monique Bennett, a registered respiratory therapist from Houston, Texas, has been stationed at three different hospitals since the pandemic began and is now helping overburdened medical workers at Orange County Medical Center in Santa Ana, Calif.

“We are exhausted. We are on our third wave now and many of us traveled during the early stages of this pandemic to New York and, now, here I am traveling to another state trying to help out our fellow health care workers who are overwhelmed and have been working around the clock,” Bennett told Yahoo News. “So, basically, we are just tired. It’s literally like a war zone. Our hospital is completely full.”

Health care workers at U.S. hospitals are speaking out about the toll of serving on the front lines of the pandemic. (Getty Images)
Health care workers at U.S. hospitals are speaking out about the toll of serving on the front lines of the pandemic. (Getty Images)

After a staggering peak that ushered in the new year, hospitalizations due to COVID-19 began falling in the second half of January. In response, cash-strapped states like California seized on the first good news in months and lifted stay-at-home orders. That means non-essential businesses and travel no longer face certain restrictions, which worries frontline workers.

The push to reopen comes as states are struggling with the pandemic’s economic fallout. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. economy shrank last year due to the pandemic by 3.5%, the worst year since 1946. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Thursday, about 20.4 million people lost their jobs from March 2020 to June 2020 largely due to businesses and schools being shut down due to the pandemic. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell warned on Wednesday that many of the unemployed have even stopped looking for work.

Still, the California Nurses Association sharply criticized California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order to lift stay-at-home restrictions in a statement last Monday, the same day the policy went into effect.

“Nurses call on state leaders to prioritize people over profits, and we urge the public to listen to nurses and continue following the stay at home orders,” the statement from the union read.

Catherine Kennedy, the vice president of National Nurses United, echoed the union’s concern for California to suspend its order. “When Gov. Newsom decided to lift those stay-at-home orders, our jaws dropped because we’re seeing patients continuing to come into the hospital and they’re sick and we’re concerned about the health care workers as well as the nurses,” Kennedy told Yahoo News. “A fair number of health care workers have gotten the virus and many have died. As a registered nurse, if I’m inadvertently exposed, my manager doesn’t let me know that. It may be days before I’m even made aware of it.”

Catherine Kennedy, the Vice President of National Nurses United talks to Yahoo News about the exasperation health care workers in hospitals are feeling across the country as the pandemic goes into year two. (Yahoo News screengrab
Catherine Kennedy, the vice president of National Nurses United, talks to Yahoo News about the exasperation health care workers in hospitals are feeling across the country as the pandemic goes into year two. (Yahoo News screengrab)

But the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in California has dropped to what Newsom described in a briefing last week as an “encouraging” number of 23,283, down from about 38,000 in the beginning of January.

“We’re seeing a flattening of the curve,” Newsom said. “Everything that should be up is up and everything that should be down is down — case rates, positivity rates, hospitalizations, ICUs, testing is starting to go back up, as well as vaccination rates in this state.”

Cassandra Craig, a registered nurse who works in an intensive care unit at a hospital in Southern California, also expressed concerns about easing COVID restrictions.

“We are still overwhelmed, but we are managing. I don’t know if it warrants the lift,” Craig told Yahoo News, adding, “I’m hoping that we are turning the corner, but it’s too early for me to tell.”

Even while invoking the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel,” Newsom made it clear that the state is “not out of the woods” and that the order being lifted is not a “light switch” for things to go back to the way they were before the pandemic.

Tired nurses stand outside the entrance to Mt. Sinai Morningside Hospital in New York City, Thursday, 23 April, 2020. (Photo by B.A. Van Sise/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Tired nurses stand outside the entrance to Mt. Sinai Morningside Hospital in New York City, on April 23, 2020. (Photo by B.A. Van Sise/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“Five hundred and four people on average losing their lives on any given day here in the state of California, 500 families torn apart because they’ve lost a loved one, because of the deadliness of this pandemic.” Newsom added, “It is just another sobering reminder on why one cannot be flippant and just turn on the light switch once again and have everybody rush back to mass gatherings.”

The California Nurses Association said that lifting the restrictions at the first sign of good news was a mistake.

“Registered nurses across the state of California know that there is a human cost to lifting stay at home orders too soon. Let’s be clear that even if numbers are ‘trending downward,’ we are still in the midst of the most deadly surge of Covid-19 yet. RNs have seen more patient death in the past few weeks than we have seen at any other point in our careers, and as frontline workers, we know better than elected officials and business leaders that it is not time to let our guard down,” CNA said in its statement.

As National Nurses United began negotiations at hospitals owned by major health care systems like Sutter Health, HCA and CommonSpirit Health, the health care workers have taken their frustration to the streets. National Nurses United, the largest union for registered nurses, held a “day of action” on Wednesday, protesting in more than a dozen states and Washington, D.C.

Kennedy says issues such as personal protective equipment supply shortages still need to be addressed. “We need to continue to do our due diligence to make sure that we have the PPE that we need and that means that we shouldn’t be reusing any kind of equipment. We also need to make sure that there is adequate testing.”

Despite being encouraged by the new Biden administration’s vaccination push and its handling overall of the pandemic, Kennedy still warns that the U.S. needs to proceed with caution, especially now that COVID-19 has begun mutating into more infectious and possibly deadlier strains.

“President Biden is now saying that he is going to invoke the Defense Production Act. But we need to get the public to understand that this is a crisis. We recognize that everyone wants to go back to school and open up their businesses, but we need to have a national strategy and a national plan.” Kennedy explained, “Get all of the supplies, all of the equipment that health care workers need in order to keep everybody safe would help … making sure that all of the states are complying and people are complying ... when we start to see that trend go down, I think we all can all take a deep breath, but right now is not the time.”

Bennett agrees. “When you step outside the hospital after doing your 12-, 14- or 16-hour shift, it’s like the world is going on like there’s not a pandemic and like everything is over,” she said. “My mind has to adjust from the dark, back into the light. It’s just the weirdest thing. At any moment we know those numbers can go back up because [California] just started opening up. The more they open, the more people start pushing the envelope.”

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