Watch the health care workers treating the deluge of COVID-19 patients streaming through their doors in East Tennessee, and you’ll see the same careful professionalism and compassionate care they’ve provided throughout the long pandemic.
In private though, though, spirits are damaged, and morale is suffering.
“It looks like business as usual, nurses doing their jobs, people moving around the floors like normal,” Dr. John Callison, a pulmonologist at University of Tennessee Medical Center, told Knox News. But that normality vanishes when you go into the break rooms or talk to any of the staff. “There is an aura of sadness that just kind of permeates the rooms.”
With the delta variant driving more people into hospital care, nurses are working overtime even though the hospital had more than doubled the number of teams staffing the ICU during the pandemic. Callison, who mostly used to do administrative work, is back in the clinic. He’s moved the paperwork late into the night or early in the morning.
Dr. Beth Jackson, chief medical officer for Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport, said the wave of recent cases is “brutal.” Patients were waiting hours at the emergency department. Doctors and nurses are burned out.
Jackson said she and other health care workers felt isolated from the rest of the community, like they are the only ones still paying attention.
“I think we were lulled into thinking we had overcome the worst of it,” Jackson said. “It is frustrating. It does feel that we’re not putting as much focus in the right areas that we could to prevent some of these transmissions.”
Jackson’s employer, Ballad Health, recently stopped performing inpatient elective procedures to make room for COVID-19 patients. Jackson said Ballad had been asking physicians and other workers in less busy clinics to volunteer in hospitals under stress.
“It’s one thing to leave from a long day at work and feel tired and ready to go home,” Jackson said. “It’s another to wake up feeling tired, getting ready for what you know will be another long, grueling day.”
Staff Sgt. Thomas Roe of the Tennessee National Guard has been there, supporting exhausted ICU staffers at the Johnson City Medical Center. Roe is one of 165 service members supporting 14 hospitals across the state.
“They’ve been amazing to me. They’re exhausted. They’re in a high-stress situation,” Roe said. “But they are still doing everything they can each shift to get these people’s health back to where it was.”
Roe, who has been a medic in the National Guard for 15 years and served as a first responder for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that he had never seen anything like the number of people sick with COVID-19.
“I never would have thought, nor could have imagined, a situation like this,” Roe told Knox News.
In recent weeks, hospitals across Tennessee have never simultaneously treated more COVID-19 patients — even at the height of the pandemic before vaccines were available. There are more residents hospitalized by the virus now than at any prior point.
The Tennessee Department of Health reported Wednesday morning at least 3,338 people were hospitalized by the virus at 114 hospitals across the state. This total narrowly exceeds the state’s prior peak of 3,314 virus patients, which was set during the worst of the winter surge on Jan. 6, according to health department data.
The state is also reporting 943 COVID-19 patients in ICU beds, far exceeding the winter peak of 806, the state data shows.
East Tennessee hospital administrators took the extraordinary step Wednesday of coming together to beg all unvaccinated Tennesseans to get their COVID-19 shots.
“Across our health systems, more than 80% of people who are hospitalized due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated,” said the joint statement from Blount Memorial Hospital, Covenant Health, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, Sweetwater Hospital Association, Tennova Healthcare and the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
The patients have changed, too. They’re younger and came in the hospital healthier, but they end up staying longer.
Callison said he’s seen patients in their 20s intubated in the ICU. Pregnant mothers with COVID-19 were stretching the capabilities of the high-risk OB-GYN team.
“There are patients who are 30 and 30-35 weeks pregnant who are not ready to give birth that have to be induced or have an emergency C-section because their lungs are failing,” Callison said. “That’s hard. It’s affecting all aspects of the health care teams.”
Callison said everyone is dispirited, from families unable to visit their loved ones to the health care workers themselves.
“After the winter we thought, hey, we’re getting close to the end of this race. We can see the finish line,” he said. “Somebody out there keeps taking the finish line away from us. At some point, people start dropping out of the race.”
Callison and Jackson said they want local leaders to support the health care system by encouraging masking, social distancing and vaccination.
Jackson urged community members to take personal responsibility for the impact they have on those around them.
“You can have positive or negative impacts on those around you in your behavior and in your attitude,” Jackson said. “In order to get out of this at the end, it’s going to take a team to get there.”
Callison said he understands why people have wanted to tune out, but he knows doing so is dangerous.
“I think a lot of people have wanted to move on. I have wanted to move on. I have young kids at home. I want them to be able to go do all the things they enjoy and grow up like I grew up,” he said. “But putting my head in the sand and hoping it’s going to pass me by doesn’t protect my family.”