CORONAVIRUS

'It is pure exhaustion': Front-line health care workers describe working during Iowa's COVID surge

Cynthia Merulla is an internal medicine nurse at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. (Courtesy photo)
Cynthia Merulla is an internal medicine nurse at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. (Courtesy photo)
/

DES MOINES — Exhaustion.

Physical and emotional exhaustion.

That’s what Iowa’s front-line health care workers are feeling right now as COVID-19 rages through the state nine months into the pandemic.

Front-line health care workers have been dealing with the pandemic since it reached Iowa in March. Almost nine months later, COVID-19 surged through Iowa at a rate never before seen. Cases quadrupled their previous high, and hospitalizations tripled their previous highest mark set in May.

That unprecedented surge left Iowa hospitals reeling. And the workers on the front lines are feeling the impact deeply.

The refrain from those workers is consistent: They are physically and emotionally exhausted.

“To have the worst of it happening so long into this battle — everybody was already tired, and now everyone’s working even harder than they were,” said Kirstin Brainard, a nurse practitioner in the intensive care unit at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. “It is pure exhaustion. And it’s not just a physical thing. This is a lot of mental exhaustion for all of us.”

Nurses interviewed for this story said they do not yet feel short-staffed, in part because their hospitals have taken necessary steps like shifting nurses from other areas to help care for COVID-19 patients. But they said their work became increasingly taxing as the number of COVID hospitalizations skyrocketed in November.

For much of the pandemic, the highest two-week average of daily new COVID-related hospital admissions statewide was 40. On Nov. 22, that average was 211.

The surge has forced nurses and other front-line workers to work long hours, often in areas in which they’re not accustomed to working.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“Everybody is getting called upon to go a little bit beyond and above what you’re typically doing, and actually we’ve been doing this for quite a few months now and — and everybody is really tired of it,” said Barbara Stanerson, a senior physical therapist at UIHC. “But, you know, we’re still there for the patients, and we’re doing everything we can to make it safe and to get these patients back on their feet.”

The emotional toll of coronavirus

The job has taken an emotional toll as well as nurses have to watch COVID patients die, often without family members at their side due to safety precautions.

“I’ve been a nurse for over a decade now, and it’s one of the hardest battles I’ve ever had to fight in my life at work,” said Lilly Olson, a nurse in the medical intensive care unit at UIHC, her voice cracking with emotion as she spoke. “We try our darndest every day, and unfortunately we lose battles. We don’t like it. It affects us a lot emotionally, mentally, physically, because it’s exhausting work.”

Olson spoke over a video call while preparing lunch for her three children, some of whom could be heard in the background. She said it’s not just the job that weighs on health care workers, it’s bringing the job home — figuratively, by still reeling from the physical and emotional effects of a shift, and literally, with the fear of contracting the virus and spreading it to their families.

“I come home from work and I just want to go to bed, even though there’s other things I have to do,” Olson said. “It’s not just a work thing, because when we’re at home we think about work. It didn’t used to be that way for me. I used to be able to come home relaxed and not worry about it. But you’re physically exhausted. I have three kids to take care of. Three kids is a lot of work. It’s hard to give them my full energy because I use a lot of it at work.”

Said Cynthia Merulla, an internal medicine nurse at UIHC, “In the back of your mind, you’re thinking of your own families. You’re trying to be as thorough as possible (using safety precautions) because you just do not want to take it home to a family member.”

And it’s not just their own families about which health care workers are concerned. They also feel for the families of COVID patients. Often family members are unable to visit because of safety concerns.

“I just feel so terrible because one of the main and most important things for good patient outcomes is to have that support system, is to have their families. And these people don’t have that. They can’t have it in the way they need it. The risk is just too high,” Merulla said. “COVID is just making devastation across everywhere.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Nurses said they have even been forced to have difficult end-of-life discussions with family members over the phone instead of in-person.

A double dose of good news

There is good news: The recent surge may be subsiding, and COVID-19 vaccines are on the way.

After hitting those dangerous and unprecedented peaks in late November, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been declining over the past two weeks. However, those figures still remain dramatically higher than the previous peak over the summer.

And the first batches of the vaccines are expected to arrive in Iowa this week. The state, based off federal guidance, has determined hospital and other health care workers, along with staff and residents at long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, will be prioritized to receive the vaccinations first.

But it will be months before the vaccine is available to the general public, experts said.

In the meantime, those front-line workers pleaded with Iowans not to let down their guard in the ongoing battle to prevent the virus’ spread. They asked everyone to continue washing their hands, staying 6 feet away from others outside their home, and wearing face masks when in public around others.

“My No. 1 thing is to not let a stabilization of cases make you put down your guard. The moment that those guards come down in the community and people tend to relax on restrictions and mandates, that is COVID’s prime opportunity to wreak havoc,” Merulla said. “It’s just so, so important to be vigilant, to be cautious, to do your part in the community to contain it.”

Merulla implored Iowans to do their part, not just to help health care workers, but to save lives.

“Even if you don’t care about getting COVID, if you could care less if you got it. Do it for your mother or your sibling. Do it for your own child,” she said. “Love somebody enough to protect them.”

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please subscribe. Your subscription will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.