Health

At a California hospital, omicron leaves staff exhausted in body, and sometimes spirit

“It’s
been crazy,” said the 26-year-old technician as patients lie on seats a
few feet away at Providence Mission Hospital Mission Viejo, waiting for beds.
“We have had literally 24-hour wait times, 18-hour wait times, and it’s
just people after people coming in.”

Orange
County, in southern California, has one of the highest COVID-19 hospitalisation
rates in the state, where cases peaked about two weeks ago.

As in
hospitals across the country, omicron hit Providence Mission’s emergency room
hardest with record numbers of patients. Fewer intensive-care beds are needed
for this less-deadly variant, but it is still inflicting major lung damage on
the unvaccinated, doctors say.

The 504-bed
acute care hospital triaged patients into modern surge wards and intensive care
units that have been able to expand and contract to COVID-19 waves like few
others in the country.

Staff,
depleted by sickness and resignations, have taken a beating. Many say they have
caught COVID-19 twice, have had little time to process hundreds of coronavirus
deaths, and face tense moments with patients and families in a county known for
its political conservatism, according to about a dozen doctors and nurses who
spoke to Reuters.

“We
responded, but it was overwhelming, it nearly broke all of us,” said
emergency room doctor Jim Keany. Many of his colleagues, Keany said, are
exhausted, see no end to the pandemic and have quit.

Emergency
room patient numbers have plateaued at an “unsustainably high level,”
said Keany, leaving people waiting on gurneys in corridors.

“I
think a lot of us just feel numb,” said Amy Langdale, an emergency room
trauma nurse. “There’s just an underlying depression, there’s definitely a
very high burnout.”

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Around eight
of 10 patients on ventilators in intensive care are unvaccinated, according to
Dr. Robert Goldberg, a critical care specialist at Providence Mission.

Nationally,
deaths, which tend to lag infection rates, have been rising and have averaged
over 2,500 a day, double the level seen before the omicron surge, but below the
peak of 3,300 a day during the Delta surge in January 2021, according to a
Reuters tally. Cases and hospitalisations continue to fall rapidly.

Some
patients in the Providence Mission intensive care unit spend the last weeks of their
lives on ventilators that pump oxygen in and out of coronavirus-damaged lungs.

A
middle-aged man in the unit struggling to breathe decided to go on a
ventilator. His children leaned over him, his son with an arm on his bare back,
his daughter with a hand on his head, their heads pressed to his side, praying
for him to get better.

“Doctor,
what do you think about my decision?” the man asked as he lay face down to
help him breathe.

“I
think that if you want to fight as hard as you can, you made the right
decision,” said Dr. Tauseef Qureshi as he unplugged the patient’s mobile
phone to make room for the ventilator.

The
patient’s family asked that none of their names be used.

Outside, a
picture in a staff area showed nurses who volunteered to work in the unit back
in early 2020 when many medics were scared to set foot there. Danielle Shaw is
among them.

“I call
it Russian roulette. You could have no risk factors and still get super
sick,” Shaw said of the coronavirus she has seen kill young, old and healthy
people.

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One constant
is the high survival rate of vaccinated patients, added Goldberg, a pulmonary
critical care doctor.

He finds it
difficult working with “politicized” families who accuse his team of
doing little for patients when he says everything is being done to keep them
alive.

“We are
seeing our colleagues go down, becoming sick, and then to have families that
are confrontational is very frustrating and difficult – and emotionally
trying,” Goldberg said.

Although
Orange County was long a Republican bastion, Democrats now hold five of the
seven US congressional districts there.

For now,
Keany, the emergency room doctor, is thankful that only 25 percent of emergency
room patients have COVID-19, compared with well over half a few weeks ago.

Sitting on
the ER frontline, Scott said she is tired but knows patients are even more
exhausted.

“I
choose to be here, I love my job,” said the “tech,” who has
known nothing but COVID-19 since she began work at Providence Mission two years
ago.

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