ST. JOSEPH — We’ve seen their faces on the national news – nurses pushed beyond exhaustion as they help patients fight COVID-19 and, in too many cases watch patients die from it.
The long hours and constant stress likewise are taking an emotional toll on local nurses, said Bridget Demler, nurse manager of the critical care unit at Lakeland Medical Center in St. Joseph.
“I’ve had conversations with nurses who describe having a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
Lakeland, like many hospitals across Michigan and the nation, is now entering a critical period as the number of COVID-19 cases has skyrocketed locally, putting a major strain on the hospital system and the doctors and nurses who provide care.
A big part of the problem unique to a pandemic is that patients with COVID-19 can’t have any visitors. Even patients without COVID-19 are limited to one approved visitor to help slow the spread of the virus.
“The nursing staff becomes the family for the patients because the families aren’t able to provide the support that they would normally provide in a normal hospital setting,” she said. “... It’s hard to see people in the hospital who aren’t able to connect with their families like they normally would.”
Demler said that dying of COVID-19 is a very lonely death.
“Losing patients is difficult in any situation, but even more so in a COVID setting because they aren’t able to have all of their family there,” she said. “You want to be there for the patients as much as possible.”
But nurses feeling the need to spend more time with patients is happening when they are having to work longer hours and extra shifts, as the number of patients in the hospital grows. As a nurse manager, Demler said she typically works eight-hour days, five days a week. But that has changed in 2020. Due to a shortage of nurses, she has picked up shifts in addition to her managerial duties.
“What I’m doing is nothing out of the ordinary,” she said. “It’s the same as what the nurses are doing on the floor in terms of picking up extra shifts, being on call so that if we experience a rise in (the number of patients), the nurses are there to take care of the patients.”
On top of the extra hours and responsibilities over the last eight months, nurses also confront fear of contracting COVID-19 and passing it along to family members.
“We have a lot of safety measures in place but still, in the back of your mind, you’re worried about keeping yourself safe,” Demler said.
How can the public help? One way is to be understanding about the visitor restrictions.
“It’s not that we’re trying to keep them from connecting with their family,” she said. “We want to keep everyone safe so that we don’t continue to experience the high volume of patients that we have suffering from COVID.”
She said another way people can help is by staying home around the holidays, especially since people can be contagious with COVID-19 but because they have no symptoms, they are spreading it unknowingly.
“Of course we want to be with our families during the holidays,” Demler said. “... It may be an inconvenience for us not to be with our families, but I think in the long run, it helps us out having more holidays with our families because we stop the spread.”
Plus, she said a vaccine appears to be one the way soon, meaning a return to normal is in sight.
“It may seem like forever, but it’s a short amount of time compared to a lifetime,” she said.
Christine Fox, executive director of patient care services and director of nursing at Lakeland in St. Joseph, said it’s not just nurses who are showing signs of burning out. She said most of the staff at the hospital are working longer, more stressful hours.
“If we continue to surge, it’s only going to get worse,” she said.
Berrien County has now recorded 109 COVID-19 deaths, with 26 of those coming in November. The first wave saw the highest number of deaths, with 34 being recorded in May. April had the third highest with 14 deaths.
Recoveries also continue to amass in Berrien County. The county has recorded 2,659 recoveries, as of Monday, Nov. 30. That’s about 41 percent of the confirmed positive cases that have recovered from the virus. When factoring in deaths, about 3,650 people are still actively sick. That’s compared to 3,105 the previous Monday.
The seven-day average for new cases a day was about 114 on Nov. 30, down from 135 a week earlier. The decrease can be partially attributed to less reporting and testing over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, as the average was 160 on Friday, Nov. 27.
Spectrum Health Lakeland was treating 62 COVID-positive patients Monday, Nov. 30, down from 66 on Friday, Nov. 27, but keeping with a trend. There were 67 patients on Saturday and 65 patients on Sunday.
Several area COVID-19 outbreaks at schools were reported on Nov. 30 by the state.
The outbreaks included a staff case and a student case at Mars Elementary School in Berrien Springs; a staff case and a student case at Three Oaks Elementary School; and three cases, in both students and staff, at Coloma High School.
Outbreaks are defined as two or more COVID-19 cases who may have shared exposure on school grounds and are from different households.
— Alexandra Newman contributed to this report