First Line Of Defense: The Frontline Doctors & Nurses Battle Another COVID Surge

Thursday, August 26th 2021, 10:30 pm

News 9's Erica Rankin has been into the COVID-19 ICU at SSM Health twice now.

The first time in the COVID-19 ICU, nurses were worn down but were also hopeful with the vaccine coming down the pipeline.

After the COVID-19 vaccine began its rollout, though, was different. Morale was seemingly low with a shortage of staff treating just as many patients as they did previously.

"Literally, before you guys came in, we intubated two people," SSM Health COVID-19 ICU charge nurse Amy Pettit said as she walked with us through intensive care. "You'll notice our IV poles are back in the rooms.”

Back in December, the hallways were filled with more staff and personal protective equipment. With fewer staff and the ability to have better airflow, their hallways seem emptier and the feeling is eerie.

"Unfortunately," Pettit said. "The patient that was in this room passed away this morning.”

Right now the nurses have been stretched out as a staff, working to provide a high level of care to the those battling the virus.

The hospital initially transitioned out of pandemic mode late March 2021 when numbers decreased significantly, but with a sharp uptick in cases, they returned to pandemic mode July 31.

The decision to reopen came from the hospital's leadership team.

“As for other medical conditions, SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital in Midtown cares for COVID-19 patients at all levels of care – from provider offices, to the emergency room, to inpatient hospitalization, including intensive care, to the need for long-term care by a specialist and rehabilitation,” SSM Health St. Anthony Midtown chief nursing officer Elain Richardson said. “We have been caring for COVID patients continuously since spring 2020. When we reach a certain threshold of COVID patients, we convert entire units to care only for these patients, which creates efficiencies. When case numbers decreased in spring 2021, we gradually transitioned these units out of pandemic mode. Due to an alarming increase in COVID cases, we had to reconvert three units back to being COVID-dedicated, and we are on alert for more. Within three weeks, we have outrun our ICU capacity and are seeing up to almost 30 holds in our ER of patients awaiting available staffed hospital beds. This is a dire situation. It is absolutely critical that Oklahomans get vaccinated and wear masks. Every bed statewide taken by a COVID patient is a bed not available for patients with other conditions, from cancer care to surgery recovery, to stroke victims and more.”

Amid the new wave of positive cases, emotions have been at an all-time high among healthcare workers.

Pettit told us it's her privilege to be next to a patient, saying their final words or taking their last breath. At the same time, it's a position she is tired of experiencing.

"I am tired of listening to people say goodbye over a phone call, telling their loved ones they love them,” Pettit said. "And I am holding their hand and they are getting ready to go onto the ventilator. I am tired of listening to those conversations, really."

In the past 30 days, hospital admissions among those unvaccinated for COVID-19 is around 2,200.

People who are fully vaccinated was just under 200, calculating to just under 95% of people in hospitals beds are unvaccinated.

"Most patients on a ventilator will not survive, unfortunately," said Dr. Muhammad Ishaq, who works in critical care medicine at SSM Health and specialized in pulmonary disease.

Dr. Ishaq said he's never seen a disease cause such severe damage to a person's lungs like COVID-19. He said he is seeing similar lung damage in the much younger patients the hospital is currently seeing.

"It is very hard because a lot of these patients are seemingly very healthy younger patients who had a decent life expectancy," Dr. Ishaq said. "Now they are critically ill in the ICU and their chances of survival are very, very low. It is hard."

Many patients they are seeing are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s but they have some patients in their 20s, as well.

"We have a girl in her 20s right now that has been on a ventilator for a week and we can't find her an ECMO bed and we are just waiting for one to open up,” Pettit said.

Both have been and are still urging people get vaccinated and to help them get through this pandemic once and for all.

"At the end of the day, you have to have hope," Pettit said. "You have to have hope in your fellow man that they will do the right thing and we will care for each other. And they will hear what is going on in our hospitals that we need the public to help in getting vaccinated and masking up because we are tired and stretched thins and it is not sustainable."

Right now, SSM Health has three COVID-dedicated units. The hospital said it is standing by to possibly open more.

On the day we visited the hospital, there were no available staffed ICU beds, 27 ER holds and 50 people on a wait list to transfer in from other health systems.