Sarah Flanagan, a 24-year-old acute care nurse, cannot believe that she is back here again, working long hours in a Florida hospital overrun with patients who have the coronavirus.
Countless people who need care are being held in the hallways of the emergency department for days. Her hospital, which Flanagan asked not be named due to job security concerns, is converting more and more units into COVID-19 units. And practically all of those patients are unvaccinated, Flanagan said.
After 18 months of this, medical workers have had enough.
“We started losing staff in waves and droves,” she told HuffPost. “There was one unit that, literally, the entire night shift decided, ‘We’re done.’”
The hospital has seen its highest peak in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started and patients who are sicker than ever before, with not enough nurses to help them, Flanagan said.
Many nurses feel worn out, defeated and disappointed in patients who did not get vaccinated and by the fact that there aren’t enough staff members to go around.
“You feel like what you’re doing isn’t enough. It’s so frustrating,” Flanagan said, adding that she’s struggling to find anything rewarding in nursing right now. “You’re just seeing so many people not doing well.”
Nearly two years in, nurses are reaching their breaking point
Of course, Flanagan is far from the only nurse feeling tired and hopeless as coronavirus deaths continue to rise. And though some evidence shows that new cases and hospitalizations are leveling off nationally, staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic mean nurses around much of the country are unlikely to get a break anytime soon. In Florida, where Flanagan works, 70% of hospitals faced staffing shortages over the summer.
“The pandemic is accelerating a broad trend that has been building for some time,” Joanne Spetz, director of the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies and co-author of a study on COVID-related nursing shortages, said in a press release earlier this month.
Spetz’s study found that California will face a significant nursing shortage — of nearly 41,000 nurses — until at least 2026 as older nurses retire, citing burnout and the desire to keep family members safe from the coronavirus. National estimates suggest the United States could face nursing shortages until 2030.
In many ways, it’s a one-two punch: Nurses are stressed because they’re overworked and there aren’t enough of them. They’re also emotionally exhausted because so many of the tough cases they see are preventable with vaccination. More than 98% of hospital admissions for COVID-19 between June and August were among unvaccinated people, according to estimates from the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker.
“I do get frustrated taking care of unvaccinated COVID patients. I think they’re taking up beds for other patients,” said Patricia, a 28-year-old traveling nurse who has worked in New Jersey, South Carolina and Tennessee during the pandemic.
“I’ve heard too many stories of patients dying because ICU beds are full,” added Patricia, who asked to use only her first name due to privacy. “Even with my frustration, I am able to put my personal feelings away and take care of my patients as best as I can.”
It’s on all of us — and the system — to help
Things have gotten bad enough over the past two months that Flanagan has considered quitting. She finds it devastating that 18 months in, things are worse than ever before.
The struggle is widespread: One survey found that 81% of nurses aged 34 and younger say they feel exhausted and 71% feel overwhelmed. More qualitative studies have also found feelings of inadequacy and helplessness among nurses during the pandemic.
“Each time I go into the hospital and it feels like there are fewer resources and less staff, the more powerless I feel and the more I feel like what I’m doing doesn’t matter,” Flanagan said. “For the last two months, I have felt after particularly difficult shifts like I don’t know how much longer I can be at the bedside.”
What is most heartbreaking, she added, is that when hospitals like hers are overrun with patients who have COVID-19, she’s not able to give anyone the kind of time and care they deserve. Flanagan has thrown herself into advocacy work seeking federal intervention to address nurse burnout, and has shared her experience on social media, which has been somewhat helpful. She has started going back to therapy and takes medication to help manage her mental health.
Many of the changes that Flanagan and other nurses want to see must happen within their hospitals and by increasing the nation’s nursing workforce, which is not easy to do.
“We can’t graduate nurses fast enough, but even when they do graduate, they are often not prepared to provide the level of care that’s most needed right now,” Katie Boston-Leary, a nursing educator, told The New York Times last month.
But just because system-level changes are needed to ease the burden on nurses doesn’t mean everyone else is off the hook. Getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu dramatically decreases the risk of hospitalization, which takes pressure off overwhelmed hospitals and ICUs. Earlier on in the pandemic, there was a lot of focus on ways individuals could help health care workers, such as by cooking meals for them, helping out with child care or simply reaching out to lend support. Now, many nurses feel like they’ve been forgotten even though they are doing more than ever before.
“I want people to understand that we nurses are exhausted,” Patricia said. “This pandemic has taken a toll on us in ways we couldn’t imagine. We are extremely overworked and underpaid. Nurses are fed up with staff shortages, and they’re quitting. We see death now more than ever. I encourage everyone to check on their nurse friends and family members.”