‘We’re in the homestretch’: Nurses hopeful as COVID slows, vaccinations speed up

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On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. At the time, Sherri Dayton, an emergency room nurse at Backus Hospital in Norwich, Conn., had yet to see a COVID-19 patient. It took a little more than a month before the first patient came into the hospital’s ER with signs of COVID-19. “When he died, everyone in the ER was like ‘Oh my God, we lost our first COVID patient.’ But it was just the beginning,” says Dayton, who is president of Backus Federation of Nurses/AFT Connecticut, which represents more than 400 nurses at the hospital.

a healthcare work in ppe holds a sign that says we can do thisPhoto credit: Drazen Zigic/istock

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 29 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported, and more than 500,000 Americans have succumbed to the disease since last March. Now, several new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 are gaining ground here in the U.S. The good news is that the nationwide vaccination program that began on Dec. 14 is yielding results. Nearly 30 percent of the country’s 328 million residents have received at least one dose of the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines available throughout the country. President Biden set a goal to administer 100 million vaccinations to Americans in his first 100 days in office. Recently, the nation reached that goal with 42 days to spare.

The country is also experiencing a downward trend in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. According to the CDC, hospital admissions of patients with confirmed COVID-19 decreased 70.4 percent from the national seven-day average peak of 16,540 admissions on Jan. 9, 2021, to 4,889 admissions over the week ending March 9. In recent weeks, the number of COVID-19 deaths has fluctuated. However, there has been an overall decline of 56 percent of the seven-day moving average since Jan. 13.

Dayton says the flow of COVID-19 patients to Backus fluctuated until just after Halloween, when a surge of patients kept coming. “January was a rough month for us. We were struggling,” says Dayton, referring to the number of COVID-19 cases the healthcare workers treated.

Things are much better now, says Dayton. In Connecticut, the COVID-19 positivity rate has dropped to 3.75 percent, down from its record high of 29.04 percent in April 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. “People are getting vaccinated,” she says. “Last year at this time, people were freaking out. There was a lot of stress.”

Jeff Weber, president of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, says the drop in hospitalizations eases the burden for members. Hospitals like Ascension St. Francis in Milwaukee, which put a hold on performing elective surgeries last year, have returned to normal, he says.

In the past month, the positivity rate in the state has dropped to 3.13 percent from a high of 15.2 percent in November 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. In addition, roughly 14 percent of Wisconsinites have been fully vaccinated.

“Wisconsin has cleared some hurdles,” says Weber. “We’re cautiously optimistic that we will turn the corner.”

Julia Barcott, a per diem ICU nurse at Astria Toppenish Hospital in Yakima County, Wash., says her hospital has had fewer COVID-19 patients. “We still see people filter in with the virus but not as many who have to be hospitalized. It’s not nearly as frantic.”

Last year, Yakima County, which is in central Washington, had one the highest rates of COVID-19 infections on the West Coast. Barcott attributes the high caseload to many residents who work in meatpacking and agricultural jobs in the county. The state has seen a drop in the COVID-19 positivity rate, and nearly 13 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Barcott, chair of the Washington State Nurses Association’s Cabinet on Economic and General Welfare, says some of the regular patients, who stayed away during the pandemic, are starting to return to the hospital. “We hadn’t seen them for a while because they were afraid of getting sick. And now they’re coming back.”

The pandemic has had a deleterious effect on nurses, says Barcott. “There’s a lot of burnout and PTSD. We’ve had a number of nurses who have moved into other roles after this outbreak because it’s just too much, and they can’t do it anymore.”

Seeing states like Florida and Texas reopen without any precautions makes a lot of nurses upset, says Barcott. “I think there’s a lot of anger at what’s happening in places like Texas. It’s been very disheartening for people. Even if you get vaccinated, the hope is that people will continue to wear a mask and social distance.”

Barcott got fully vaccinated about a month ago. “I’ve heard from some people who didn’t want to get the vaccine, but now that so many people have been vaccinated, we’re hopeful there won’t be so much apprehension about it.”

Dayton is also encouraged about the vaccine, although she worries that not everyone is willing to get vaccinated. In Connecticut, 14 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. “I’m hoping as we get further down the road, people will see the benefits of it,” she says.

Dayton got her vaccination in December, three weeks after she recovered from COVID-19. “It was the sickest I’ve ever been in my adult life, she recalls. But after getting vaccinated, she is more confident about not getting sick again. “I feel like Wonder Woman at this point. I’m not lax about wearing my mask, but I’m way more comfortable in my family circle now.”

Like Barcott, Dayton is concerned about the nursing profession. Even though things are changing for the better, her hospital has suffered an exodus of nurses. “They just started quitting; they didn’t have any more to give,” Dayton laments.

She adds that nursing has changed since the pandemic. “One of the things nurses do is connect with our patients with a touch.” This winter, when she cared for a young patient hurt in a sledding accident, the child’s mother was racked with guilt over the incident. “Normally, I would have put my hand on her shoulder and tried to make her feel better. But you can’t do that anymore.”

There are signs of hope for Dayton, however. “I saw a story recently about more people applying to nursing school because they want to help. I was shocked; it gives me hope for humanity. We’re in the homestretch. Let’s keep doing this for a little while longer,” says Dayton, referring to wearing masks and social distancing. “These things are saving lives. It’s such a small thing to do for your community and your fellow human beings. The finish line is right in front of us.”

[Adrienne Coles]