Oregon doctor: 'I don’t think there are words for' how health care workers feel right now

The coronavirus pandemic, now fueled by the more contagious Delta variant, has taken both a major physical and emotional toll on health care workers across the country.

“I think we all reached exhaustion maybe a wave or two ago,” Dr. Esther Choo, professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “And at this point, I don’t think there are words for what people are feeling. We’ve lost so much of our workforce, particularly our nursing workforce because the type of work we’re doing for so long has been unsustainable.”

An April 2021 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,327 frontline health care workers found that 62% reported COVID-related worry or stress having a negative impact on their mental health while 70% of health care workers between the ages of 18-29 have indicated they are feeling burnout.

A May survey of 1,273 nurses found that 43% are considering leaving the health care profession, with 87% reporting that their hospitals were short staffed.

“I think we’re doing everything we can to just support each other,” Choo said. “We’re obviously getting a lot of support from the community. Every little bit helps. And I think it’s not really an issue of maintaining morale — it’s like we just have to do what we have to do when we’re there.”

The pandemic also occurred amid a shortage of health care workers: The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicted back in 2019 that the U.S. would see a shortfall of up to 122,000 physicians by 2032. The U.S. will also need more than 200,000 new nurses each year to meet demand.

“As school closed and people’s family care needs changed, it just wasn’t possible to be at work doing this kind of work and also making things work for your family,” Choo said. “We’re in a staffing shortage across the board. And so, I think every time somebody peels off for understandable reasons, it becomes a little bit tougher for the people that are here.”

'People are having to double up patients in beds'

Health care workers are continuing to find themselves in unprecedented situations as hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs) keep filling up with COVID patients.

In Hawaii, as hospitalizations surge, the governor signed an executive order granting health care institutions immunity from liability if they are forced to ration care because of the number of hospitalizations. And in Oregon, where Choo is based, hospitalizations are up by 21% over the past 14 days.

“We are back in a really concerning time, where we are reaching full capacity for our hospital in general, and for ICUs across the Portland area,” Choo said. “I just want to be really clear that when we say we’re beyond capacity, this is after we’ve done everything that we can on this end to maximize capacity above usual.”

Furthermore, “we’re not talking about what our ICU capacity was back in 2019," she said. "We’re talking about moving ICU space into post-surgical recovery areas, really trying to maximize our staff. We even have National Guard in our hospital to take over essential non-clinical roles to try to free up everybody as much as possible for patient care. These are things that are so beyond normal for us. And yet, we are still very much on the edge of what we can do.”

Oregon's governor, Kate Brown, recently announced that up to 500 health care workers would be stationed in the central and southern regions of the state to address the need and alleviate some of the burden.

“The other thing that we’re noticing around the state is that ICU care is not what it is normally,” Choo said. “We’re hearing that people are having to double up patients in beds. We’re hearing that nursing-to-patient ratios are sometimes double or more what they usually are. Even the people we can squeeze into ICU beds sometimes are not getting the ICU level care that we’re used to. And this is just simply what we have to do in these times."

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at [email protected]

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