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Demoralized health workers struggle as coronavirus numbers surge

A healthcare worker wears personal protective equipment
A healthcare worker attends to a patient at a mobile coronavirus testing location in Auburn, Maine.
(Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press)

Doctors and nurses around the U.S. are becoming exhausted and demoralized as they struggle to cope with a record-breaking surge of COVID-19 patients that is overwhelming hospitals and prompting governors to clamp back down to contain the virus.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday banned indoor dining in New York City, saying he had been waiting in vain for hospitalization rates to stabilize. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf did the same on Thursday and also suspended school sports and closed gyms, theaters and casinos.

A record of more than 107,000 people were in the hospital in the U.S. with COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to the COVID Tracking Project. More than 294,000 Americans have died of the virus.

Hospitals around the country have been overrun.

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“We’re constantly looking for beds,” said Cassie Ban, an intensive care nurse at Indiana University Health.

Before the pandemic, an ICU nurse might handle two patients per shift. Ban said she now regularly cares for four or five. The national death toll doesn’t begin to capture what COVID-19 does to critically ill patients or the medical teams who care for them, she said.

“I wish people could see what I do,” Ban said. “People are terrified and they’re alone. Each one of those numbers is the death of a person who wasn’t ready to go yet.”

Although concerns remain about getting enough beds, masks and other equipment, many front-line health workers are most worried about staff shortages.

Nurses are the most scarce resource of all, said Kiersten Henry, an ICU nurse practitioner at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney, Md.

“I feel we’ve already run a marathon, and this is our second one. Even people who are upbeat are feeling run-down at this point,” Henry said.

Many expressed frustration over some Americans’ disregard and even contempt for basic precautions against the virus.

Dr. Lew Kaplan, a critical care surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said healthcare workers are treated as “heroes” for helping patients but are seen as “close to evil incarnate” when they ask people to wear masks.

“It is very disheartening, while you are struggling to manage the influx of patients, there are others who won’t accept public health measures,” said Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine.

Raju Mehta, a critical care physician at Advocate Health and Hospital in the Chicago area, said that early on in the pandemic, many front-line workers were energized by a sense of purpose. Now, that morale is beginning to crumble.

“Seeing what we’re seeing, day in, day out, for eight months, takes a toll,” Mehta said. “It’s tough knowing what we see, and then what happens outside our walls.”


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