Hospitals struggle with morale as COVID-19 cases rise

By Hailey Stiehl

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

As the summer of 2021 began, it felt like some normalcy was slipping back into our lives for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. For healthcare workers, like Emergency Room Physician, Dr. Colleen Casey, this sense of normalcy was the light at the end of the COVID-filled tunnel.

Recently Casey and her colleagues at UNC Rex Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina began to see fewer COVID patients as the vaccine became widely available. When they ventured outside for a cup of coffee during their breaks, they weren’t as concerned about sitting six feet apart. They left their masks off outside and spoke to each other, about their summer and travel plans they needed after everything they had been through.

“I remember mid-summer not seeing a single COVID patient for four weeks,” Casey said. “It truly felt like the world was opening back up, and our lives would go back to normal.”

A Resurgence in Cases

One weekend towards the end of summer caught Casey’s attention. Four patients were admitted with COVID-like symptoms, a major red flag after not seeing any COVID-19 patients for almost a month. The patients tested positive for the virus, marking a negative shift in plans for a full reopening.

The Delta variant’s surge through North Carolina communities, particularly in those that are unvaccinated, has led to increased hospitalization rates. Healthcare providers are once again facing mounting levels of burnout and fatigue as they battle another surge of the virus.

“Our local hospitals are now full and overwhelmed again,” Casey said. “With all of this happening and having to go back to the way things were during our last peak of COVID, my mental health is taking a significant dive.”

Casey works in the ER but has been helping in Rex Hospital’s COVID unit for the duration of the pandemic. The hospital is currently experiencing a shortage of beds, respirators, nurses and hospital staff. The stress of shortages and extreme work hours combined with the rising cases, has left doctors like Dr. Kenny Michau II, short on compassion for unvaccinated patients.

“I would say I find it hard to have sympathy in caring for people who didn’t get vaccinated for any particular reason, or because of misinformation, and now are very entitled about the medical care they should receive,” Michau II said. “It’s like they don’t trust science but then want science to ‘fix them’.”

Recently, Casey treated a 30-year-old unvaccinated patient who was hospitalized with COVID-19. As Casey made her rounds, the patient repeatedly asked Casey if there was anything she could do, or any medications she could take to make her feel better. Casey said the patient stared back at her in disbelief when she answered with a simple no, as there was nothing more she could do for them.

“They had the opportunity to do something for themselves in the six months prior when they could have gotten vaccinated,” Casey said. “This is part of the reason why we’re now back at what feels like square one.”

The Exhausting Toll

Being exposed to COVID-19 all day isn’t just stressful for Casey and her colleagues’ mental and physical health. It has trickled into their personal lives, impacting their home life and families. Casey’s husband, Tim Miller, has seen the hardships that his wife has experienced from working on the front line of the pandemic.

After every shift, Casey had to take off all of her work clothes in the garage, then immediately shower before seeing her family. There were times when she had to isolate herself in separate rooms in her home for days, away from her husband and children, in fear of spreading the virus to them.

“It was hard for so long having to live like that, in fear that Colleen could potentially give us COVID,” Miller said. “When you come home from work and can’t be around your family because you’re worried of the potential risks of spreading the virus, that’s a heavy burden to carry.”

Dr. Christine Knettel, Vice-Chair of Emergency Medicine at UNC Rex Hospital, has two children under the age of 10, and has faced similar fears of spreading the virus to her family and children.

“During the pandemic, rough days at work have become increasingly more common because of everything we’ve had to see and face,” Knettel said. “And when you have a rough day and all you want to do is go home and hug your kids, but you’re terrified to potentially pass COVID to them. It’s been immensely stressful to now have that additional weight on your shoulders as a parent who works in healthcare with cases climbing again.”

In addition to the fatigue and mental burdens of once again being on the front line against COVID, the emotional toll of the situation has worsened for Casey and her co-workers. Casey recently signed three death certificates in one day due to COVID-19. With hospital restrictions not allowing for family visitation, most of these patients passed without family by their side.

“That kind of thing is heartbreaking to see not only as a doctor but as a human being,” Casey said. “This shouldn’t be happening with a vaccine widely available for most people.”

As Casey and her coworkers are once again required to wear protective equipment to fight against COVID, they think back to the early days of this summer. Days when they saw a drop in cases, when they only needed surgical masks to see patients, and when they thought the battle would soon be over. As cases climb and burnout grows, Casey hopes that the populations responsible for driving the COVID-19 surge will think about helping the community return to normal.

“The choice of individuals to not go get vaccinated at this point is putting me at risk, putting my family at risk, putting my mental health at risk and putting my patients at risk,” Casey said. “I hope that all who can get vaccinated go and do their part to end this so we can fully enjoy all that normal life has to offer.”

Edited by Peitra Knight