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Burnout, full beds, tearful goodbyes: Inside a local COVID-19 unit

Area hospitals full of COVID-19 patients
Inside St. Elizabeth COVID-19 ward
Posted at 7:08 PM, Jan 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-14 19:33:05-05

EDGEWOOD, Ky. — The scene is similar in every local hospital in the Tri-State region: Too many patients and not enough beds.

Inside the COVID-19 ward at St. Elizabeth's Edgewood location, a beeping sound alerts hospital staff that a new patient is being paged in for one of the facility's 32 rooms.

All of those rooms are full.

"There's a list of patients to come up here longer than the list of patients leaving," said Melissa Schumacher, nurse manager of the pulmonary unit at St. Elizabeth.

Schumacher, through a Zoom chat on a cellphone, provided a tour through the hospital's full COVID-19 unit.

She has been on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 for about a year — a front row seat she said she wouldn't wish on anyone.

"(I'm) overwhelmed, frustrated and sad," she said. "And concerned we're not going to be able to care for everybody. We're at capacities across the system."

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New highs for infections, new lows for hospital staff

In the St. Elizabeth Healthcare system, which spans campuses in Edgewood, Fort Thomas, Florence and Dearborn, 224 people were receiving care for COVID-19 infections as of Monday afternoon — a new high for the hospital network. The network's previous high, on Jan. 19, 2021 — before vaccines were widely available — was 219.

In all of Southwest Ohio, there were 179 COVID-19 patients in ICUs; 33% of all ICU patients in the Greater Cincinnati region are infected with the virus. Total, there are 958 COVID-19 patients occupying hospitals throughout the Tri-State.

"We've actually had to open additional ICU spaces recently," said Schumacher.

There are too many tragic moments over the past two years for her to single out just one that sticks with her, she said. She recounted a recent case when one of her patients declined and wasn't going to make it, so family was called in to say goodbye.

"A family member — multiple were here with COVID — one of them was feeling guilty, like it was their fault they had passed it to everybody," she said. "Having to wheel them over to say goodbye to their loved one, hearing them talk about the guilt, hearing them say they wish they were vaccinated, those are all hard."

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At St. Elizabeth, the COVID-19 ward is the pulmonary unit, where all COVID-19 patients are isolated. The sickest of those are transferred to the intensive care unit.

The high cost of vaccine refusal, misinformation

A majority of patients hospitalized in the ICU at St. Elizabeth facilities are unvaccinated: As of Jan. 6, 86% of the 28 COVID-19 patients in the ICU were unvaccinated and 89% of patients on ventilators were without vaccines. Patients who have received the vaccine are faring much better overall, Schumacher said.

Patients are trending younger from what we saw at the beginning of the pandemic. Schumacher said the Edgewood facility's most common COVID-19 patients are aged between 40 and 60.

Some of them, from their hospital beds, still deny the seriousness of the virus.

"They just don't believe it's real," said Schumacher. "I've had people say we're making up the numbers, that they don't feel short of breath ... so I'm having to say, 'your oxygen is in the 50s' and they're like, 'nope, I'm fine.'"

A healthy person's oxygen levels typically sit around 95 or higher, and values under 90 are considered low. Schumacher says imaging has revealed some patients appear to have holes in their lungs after battling the virus.

"I get a little frustrated at lack of vaccinations, but that's my opinion," said respiratory therapist Annette Aleywine. "I wish people, if they walked a day with me, it might change a lot of things."

Burning out over and over again

Walking a day in shoes like Aleywine's would reveal teams that are stretched, though they continue to work through their days on the front lines to save as many lives as possible. A doctor or nurse who spends even one half hour with every one of the Edgewood campus's 32 COVID-19 patients would be on their feet for 16 hours every day.

According to Schumacher, demands on the hospital network are just as high now, facing the Omicron variant of the virus, as they have been with the more severe Delta strain.

"I feel staff are more burned out now," said Schumacher. "And we have less staff to burn out."

Staffing shortages have also presented challenges, especially as hospital workers fall prey to the virus they spend their days saving others from, but that beep that indicates a new COVID-19 patient needs a bed doesn't stop.

"It's hard," said Schumacher. "I did not think we'd be here in 2022."