What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Health workers face ‘indescribable’ mental, physical exhaustion as COVID fills hospitals

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly 60% of frontline healthcare workers said that pandemic-related stress had negatively affected their own mental health — in a poll taken before the delta variant that filled hospitals even more. For more on how hospitals are facing this now fourth surge, William Brangham is joined by Mary Mahew, the president of the Florida Hospital Association.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, the pandemic has been especially difficult for those working on the front lines of health care.

    Increasingly, we're hearing about doctors and nurses who are exhausted and burning out. Moreover, the demands of caring for COVID patients comes when the nursing profession needed more nurses to begin with. One estimate from the government found a need for more than one million new registered nurses to avoid a nursing shortage.

    William Brangham looks at the fallout from all of this.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly 60 percent of front-line health care workers said that pandemic-related stress had negatively affected their own mental health. And that was a poll taken before the Delta variant arrived and filled hospitals up even more.

    When I was in Baton Rouge General earlier this month, I heard much of the same, an overtaxed hospital, ICUs full of mostly unvaccinated patients, and a nursing staff that had been struggling for over 16 months.

  • Jordan Miller, ICU Nurse, Baton Rouge General:

    The patients aren't going to stop coming. They're going to keep coming, and there's nothing that we can do to stop that.

    So, I mean, we have to do what we have to do to be able to care for them. So, yes, we're tired, but we have nurses that are picking up extra shifts and canceling plans and getting people to watch their kids so they can come in and help.

    We have nurses that are coming in that have been on maternity leave and have been doing PRN positions, and they're coming in, picking up shifts.

  • William Brangham:

    For more on how hospitals are facing staff shortages amid this now fourth surge of cases, I'm joined by Mary Mayhew. She's the president of the Florida Hospital Association.

    Mary Mayhew, thank you very much for being here.

    I know you have been talking to state — I mean, to hospital administrators across the state. And we know Florida is really suffering with a lot of new cases and a lot of hospitalizations. What are you hearing from them? How are things there?

  • Mary Mayhew:

    So, first of all, we have today nearly 17,000 COVID hospitalizations across the state.

    And that is combined with unusually high volumes of very ill non-COVID patients, along with emergency rooms that are overcrowded and full. So, boots on the ground, we are at unprecedented levels in terms of the demand on the system, which is strained, very few ICU beds, very few beds generally available around the state.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that there is a real shortage of nurses to man a lot of those beds.

    And I know that this was a crisis that preceded the pandemic. But, obviously, it seems like the pandemic has only exacerbated this.

  • Mary Mayhew:

    Well, first of all, nurses are the heart and soul of our hospitals.

    We have many health care professionals throughout the organization, our nurses, our respiratory therapists, our E.R. staff. It is nearly indescribable. The physical and mental exhaustion that our nurses and our staff have been under, when you're dealing with patients who are lining the halls on stretchers, when you are having to find a hospital in some other part of the state that can take a patient, and you're calling day in and day out to find those beds.

    It's tough to put into words the stress that that's created, the challenges it's created. And, certainly, the other concern, these nurses have put their own families at risk because of the exposure or the concern about the exposure to COVID. So, it is a lot.

    We have had our hospitals' executives using the phrase post-traumatic stress to describe what they are responding to and preparing for to support their work force, their nurses in the coming months and years.

  • William Brangham:

    So what is the solution to this? I mean, can you — are there a surplus of nurses elsewhere that you can bring? Can we train more nurses? Like, how do you see the way out of this?

  • Mary Mayhew:

    We have over 8,000 nursing vacancies right now. One in four nurses left nursing last year. One in three critical care nurses left the profession last year or — or left their jobs at least within their respective hospitals.

    So we have got to look at the pipeline. We have got to understand, how many new nurse graduates do we need? And how much does the system today currently support? We know there are waiting lists typically to get into these programs. We know that nurse faculty, we don't have enough teachers to support not only the current demand, but ultimately the supply of nurses that we need to support.

    And, again, this is both about retention, the workplace environment, what we need to be looking at to support that workplace environment, and then the number of new nurses that we need to be graduating in the next 12, 24, 36 months.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you attribute that attrition that you describe to the stresses of this pandemic, just the 16 months of never-ending and now this most recent surge?

  • Mary Mayhew:

    It's important to just underscore these are incredibly difficult and demanding jobs in the best of circumstances.

    Now you layer on to that nearly 18 months responding to this unprecedented pandemic, and then the trauma that they are experiencing. They have certainly experienced it throughout the pandemic, but now they are seeing healthy 25-year-olds become hospitalized with COVID. They are seeing young mothers die from COVID.

    The level of trauma from those experiences, we are absolutely seeing nurses that are leaving the bedside, either taking a break from that 24/7 hospital environment or pursuing other opportunities in community practices.

  • William Brangham:

    Mary Mayhew of the Florida Hospital Association, thank you very much for being here.

  • Mary Mayhew:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment