June Leffler Published

As Pandemic Wanes, Healthcare Providers Still Face COVID Trauma

Doctor, Health, Doctor with tablet, Doctor with iPad

Whether medical professionals advise it or not, much of the country has returned to normal with regards to the coronavirus pandemic. But hospitals and health care providers are still struggling.

Appalachia Health News Reporter June Leffler spoke with Doug Mitchell, Chief of Nursing for WVU hospitals, about how things are going and where the pandemic is going from here.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Leffler: Over the fall and winter, cases and hospitalizations of COVID-19 were just through the roof. We know it was really hard on hospital staff. Have things gotten better?

Mitchell: So I think they have gotten somewhat better. We know that cases are down. Certainly hospitalizations are down and deaths are down too. But we still have hospitalizations. And we still do have patients dying from COVID. So by and large, things are better, but we’re certainly not out of the woods yet. We still have between probably 1500 and 1800 surgeries that were delayed based on this pandemic. The thinking that we’re kind of back to normal and the hospitals are good to go is really not accurate. We have lots of patients who need care that was deferred. And we’re in a kind of a mini surge right now. We’ve been down to very, very few patients and few staff out. But today, we actually have 13 patients here with active COVID disease, we have 60-some employees out with COVID. So we’re still feeling lots of stress from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leffler: How are your nurses doing? Did they get to take time off? How are they doing?

Mitchell: It’s an interesting question. We know that 50 percent of nurses in the country are really, really burnt out from this whole thing. And I think we’re probably a fairly good representative of that. Thirty percent of nurses in the country are actively contemplating leaving their work. We have tried to have the ability to disconnect and not be here and take vacations and things like that. And we’re really emphasizing the idea of trying to disconnect when we’re not here, but it’s really hard. Having gone through the two years and some of the units that have seen so much devastation and death, and particularly at times where it seems like it wasn’t all necessary. It’s been really hard on folks. I just heard a story a couple of days ago on NPR about nurses talking about how it seems like, with a lot of folks, it’s just kind of back to normal out there. But there’s all this kind of shared trauma from having gone through this. So I think that folks are doing somewhat better, but we’re still not out of the woods. There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen here in the next few years.

Leffler: So nurses are contemplating leaving the profession and they’ve just had a hard time. What does that look like in terms of numbers and staffing levels? 

Mitchell: We’ve always prided ourselves here at J.W. Ruby for being able to take every patient in the state that needs us. We’re the safety net hospital. We’re the academic medical center of our land grant university here at WVU. We’ve always been able to take everyone that needs our help. We have lots of small hospitals in the state and we provide specialty care. Through this pandemic, it’s the first time we’ve not been able to accept patients based on our ability to staff, with the nursing shortage, with lots of nurses leaving to go travel where they can make just incredible salaries.

Leffler: Where do we go from here? What are you planning for?

Mitchell: So first, I’ll just give a little plug. What we need to do is vaccinate, mask and test. Right? I assume most of the listeners right now, based on your demographics, are probably highly vaccinated. I would encourage everyone to do that, to mask still. And to get tested when one’s not feeling well.

It’s a relatively dangerous place to be in a hospital in this country. So we are working diligently to make it safer and more reliable. We want it to be a great place for employees to work, a safe place and emotionally safe place. I think most probably as importantly as anything is to really work with our team to be able to heal, having gone through this very traumatic couple of years of providing care for very, very sick patients and seeing all the death and dying that they’ve seen.

Leffler: Do you see this trauma dissipating? 

Mitchell: Yeah, I think I am an optimist. I think we’ve kind of crested and I see light. My background is behavioral health. I did that for 27 years before I got into this particular role. So I think we have this shared trauma that we need to continue to work through and support each other and to make sure it’s okay for people to get care, and to feel comfortable saying “I’m not okay.”

We try to advocate for that here. And we put systems and support in place for that to occur. But there’s still a stigma. People still feel like they don’t want to show weakness or vulnerability, and they toughen it up. They’re tough nurses and physicians and healthcare workers and we want to make it a space where people can understand that what we just went through was really hard and it’s okay. As a matter of fact, it’s, frankly, heroic to ask for help and to ask for assistance.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.