‘Hard to Get Hopeful’: Arkansas Nurses Struggle with Pandemic Burnout

By Rachell Sanchez-Smith
Arkansascovid.com

As COVID-19 hospitalizations fall statewide, many nurses and hospital staff still find themselves busy trying to cover shifts due to labor shortages and managing the pressures of being on the frontline of the virus. 

Sarah Beth Coe, intensive care nurse at St. Bernards Medical Center, said initially she was encouraged by the decreasing number of patients on the ICU floor of the Jonesboro hospital. However, as a lesson from previous COVID-19 surges, she and her coworkers have learned not to believe in the downward trends.

“At this point, it’s hard to get hopeful because we’ve had decreases before, and then they just spiked right back,” Coe said. 

Sarah Beth Coe, intensive care nurse at St. Bernards Medical Center. Photo courtesy Sarah Beth Coe.

Coe says that while family and friends are empathetic, only her healthcare coworkers can directly relate to the struggles posed by the pandemic. 

Many nurses such as Coe work 12 hours shifts consumed with patients suffering from COVID-19, only to go home and confront the pandemic once more via social media. It seems as if the pandemic is inescapable.

Coe added that the line between work and home has become blurred because of the pandemic, “you leave work and it’s like you’re still at work because either people are talking about it or it’s on social media, you see it in the news, we never really stop working.”

 

St. Bernards has offered counseling and mental health resources, including a therapy dog program, to help hospital staff manage stress, Mitchell Nail, the hospital’s media relations manager said.

While nurses have always dealt with patients’ deaths and worsening health statuses, nurses during the pandemic experience a more dramatic emotional rollercoaster as health of the COVID-19 patients can fluctuate rapidly between stable and unstable. It’s tough on nurses and hospital staff who grow attached to patients and their families. 

“You start your shift, and [the patients] are doing good, and then by the end, they may not be,” Coe said. 

In addition, hospitals are strained with staffing shortages as the hospitals experience heavy traffic due to low vaccination rates and the delta variant. The latest phase of the pandemic veered into a more ominous direction, with children and young adults at the epicenter of rising hospitalizations. 

Pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations have had an 84% increase in Arkansas from the winter surge to August, though the hospitalizations have slowed since last month, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Health Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero told reporters that there was a jump of over 27% in pediatric ICU admissions over the same period. 

“We are seeing more kids going into the intensive care unit. We have data showing that those children are requiring more ventilator usage than in the past,” Romero said on Oct. 6.

Pediatric hospitals generally see a rise in cases around the start of the school year, but additional COVID-19 patients have amplified the need for hospital staff.  

Conely Pretzer, an inpatient nurse at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Springdale, also says the hospital expanded her unit to accommodate intermediate care patients, such as sicker patients with COVID-19. This change left nurses to care for more patients or work in different areas to supplement staffing shortages as emergency rooms filled up.

Arkansas Children’s, like many hospitals, experienced record numbers of hospitalizations with 24 COVID-19 patients in July. But the hospitalizations have declined, much like the state’s downward trend of cases. 

Moreover, other respiratory diseases that are common childhood illnesses like influenza or respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV,  also boost pediatric hospitalizations.

Taylor Rittman, an inpatient nurse at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, said that pediatric hospitals and wards are seeing an unusual season for respiratory diseases in children because of last years’ lockdown.

“The viruses that they normally come in with at this time of year like RSV and are hitting way harder than usual, or they’ll have RSV and COVID-19,” Rittman said. 

The future for the pandemic has remained unpredictable, leaving nurses and other healthcare professionals cautious about gaining hope for the pandemics’ end.

“When the vaccine first came out, we all got super excited, and it was just, you know, it was kind of the light at the end of the tunnel,” Coe said. She later realized that the light “was actually just the train coming toward us.”

 

Rachell Sanchez-Smith

Rachell is a journalism major at the University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media.

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