| The Columbus Dispatch
COVID-19 takes toll on nurses months into pandemic
Months after the pandemic began overwhelming the U.S. health care system, nurses at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill are still working nonstop.
Erin Layton wishes the public could see what she sees when she goes to work every day.
“The patients we’re seeing now in the ICU are sicker than ever,” said Layton, a registered nurse at OhioHealth Grant Medical Center. “It can be emotionally exhausting to give so much to your patients and they’re still dying at such a high rate.”
On a typical day Layton walks into the Downtown hospital, stops at her locker to grab her respirator and face shield, and then heads to the intensive care unit to care for some of the region’s sickest COVID-19 patients.
As virus-related hospitalizations spike across Ohio, Layton has become one of the thousands of front-line health-care workers who witness more pain and suffering as patients struggle to breathe and fight for the lives. If the rest of Ohio could be a fly on the wall when Layton makes her rounds, she said, it would likely erase any doubts they have about the virus.
Many times, the immediate family members of COVID-19 patients in the ICU are in isolation themselves to prevent the spread of the disease. That often means nurses such as Layton are the single-person support system for patients they just met.
Not only are many nurses working more overtime hours, they’re performing duties they wouldn’t normally do to keep as few people entering a patient’s room as possible.
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To minimize contact, OhioHealth has moved equipment such as intravenous (IV) pumps and dialysis machines into the hallway to be operated outside patient rooms. Not all things can be done without entering a room though, Layton said.
“We really try to limit the number of patients entering the COVID patient rooms,” Layton said. “We have had to start fulfilling roles that housekeeping usually does. We are washing the floor and cleaning windows and toilets in addition to our usual work.”
The situation is similar at Mount Carmel St. Ann’s hospital in Westerville, said Michael Friend, an ICU nurse working in a COVID ward there.
As hospitalizations have climbed, nurses have taken on more patients, Friend said. Typically, she’s helping to care for at least two to three patients a shift.
This is due to a shortage of staff members as health-care workers catch the virus. Officials at area hospitals have said workers are contracting COVID-19 because of exposure in the community, not on the job. In total, 25,581 health-care professionals have caught the virus throughout the state, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
“There’s a lot of times you could go 12 hours without even realizing you didn’t use the restroom,” Friend said. “You put (patients) first. When one of your patients starts crashing … you zone in on one of these patients.”
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The weight of the pandemic and the extra work takes its toll mentally, both Friend and Layton said.
It’s an issue that health-care providers have been dealing with throughout the first eight months of the pandemic, said Dr. Laurie Hommema, a family medicine physician who has worked on the COVID front lines and leads OhioHealth’s resiliency program.
Losing patients is difficult, but the onslaught of new patients is hard to deal with, too. Promising vaccines won’t be here in time to prevent a winter surge and knowing hospitalizations will remain high for the foreseeable future is a tough realty to cope with, Hommema said.
“What we are really broadly seeing right now is pure fatigue and exhaustion, both from a mental and emotional standpoint,” Hommema said. “It’s hard because it’s longer than a marathon now and there’s not a light at the end of the tunnel.”
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Sometimes, when Layton has had a rough week on the job, she goes home and just needs some time to herself. Luckily, her family seems to understand that, she said.
But it’s not just emotional trauma that Layton or Friend take home with them.
Early on in the pandemic, health-care providers shared photos on social media showing bruises on the bridge of their noses and raw skin behind their ears from the tight-fitting N95 masks they’re required to wear. The marks started to appear in part because health-care workers were leaving their masks on all day due to a shortage of personal protective equipment.
Although the shortage of gear has improved and those photos aren’t circulating online as much as they used to, the wounds remain and serve as a constant reminder of Ohio’s ongoing virus surge.
“We need to stay vigilant,” Layton said. “We still have sores on our noses we still have bruises on our faces. That’s all still happening. … We’re still here. “