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January 26, 2022

'It's death around you all the time': What it's like to be a nurse amid the omicron surge

Daily Briefing

    Many hospitals are currently struggling with overwhelming numbers of Covid-19 patients as well as staffing shortages, leaving the workers who remain with what one nurse manager called a "PTSD-like situation."

    Get the slide deck: Omicron and the hard truths of the nurse staffing crisis

    High patient loads, staffing shortages batter hospitals

    According to a New York Times database, the omicron surge in the United States seemingly peaked on Jan. 14 with a seven-day case average of 806,801, and is now in decline. However, hospitals in many areas of the country are still overwhelmed by record numbers of patients.

    In addition to high patient loads, hospitals are also struggling with staffing shortages, particularly of nurses, as some leave for more lucrative positions and even more are out sick with Covid-19 themselves. Roberta Schwartz, head of incident command at Houston Methodist Hospital, said the hospital has only been able to use about 20% of its 1,000 beds through the latest surge due to staffing shortages, where as many as 430 of the hospital's 8,600 workers were out sick on a single day.

    According to federal data, more than 1,000 hospitals have reported daily critical staffing shortages in recent weeks, and more than 500,000 workers have left the health care sector altogether since February 2020.

    "Every day is stressful. We never know how much staff we're going to have. Because we have a lot of staff get sick and have to be out," said Melissa Schumacher, the nurse manager for Elizabeth-Edgewood Hospital's pulmonary unit. "And a never-ending list of patients that need to come in."

    Some hospitals are offering their nurses retention bonuses to help alleviate turnover rates, but caring for the constant crush of Covid-19 patients is still taking its toll on many nurses, the Wall Street Journal writes.

    "You try to heal and move forward from a trauma, but when the trauma never stops it makes it difficult," said Cara Hawkins, the nurse manager for West Virginia University Health System's medical ICU unit.

    Nurses face exhaustion, burnout against omicron

    Nurses, doctors, and other hospital workers have experienced a significant burden throughout the pandemic, but the recent delta and omicron surges have further compounded the physical and emotional toll of their work.

    According to Schumacher, many nurses are now demoralized by their work after spending so long on the frontlines of the pandemic. "One nurse told me, 'I've fallen out of love with the profession I've dreamed of and worked so hard to enter. The things I have seen and witnessed in the past two years give me nightmares,'" she said.

    "It's death around you all the time," said Nikki Saranathan, a nurse at Houston Methodist. "It drains you."

    Even relatively new nurses are struggling to keep up with the demands of the omicron surge, according to the Journal. For example, Charity Duplessis, a nurse at Allegheny General Hospital who received her nursing degree in May 2021, said she has trouble sleeping and worries she'll burn out just as her career is starting. "I hear call bells in my sleep," Duplessis said.

    Steven Feagins, chief clinical officer at Mercy Health, compared the current battle against Covid-19 to war, explaining that health care workers wake up every day and fight against the disease.

    "For the public, it's kind of out of sight, out of mind, and we're still fighting," Feagins said. "There are nurses and physicians who have physically seen more deaths in a year than they've seen in their careers."

    And some nurses feel like they're fighting a losing battle. "I feel like we're not winning," Saranathan said. "I feel like we're losing. Two years later, we're still losing this fight." (Maher/Wernau, Wall Street Journal, 1/24; Evans, Wall Street Journal, 1/23; DeMio/Sutherland, Cincinnati Enquirer, 1/24)

    The nurse staffing crisis: 6 resources to help

    As the omicron surge threatens to overwhelm an already-exhausted health care workforce, what can you do to support, retain, and recruit your nursing care teams? Here are our latest insights to help:


    Also, check out the slide deck from our recent webinar on omicron and the hard truths of the nurse staffing crisis

    Access the webinar now

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