Healthcare Workers Share Stories of Delta Variant's Toll

Lambeth Hochwald

August 17, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

With the Delta variant surging across the country, already spread-thin health care workers are facing even sicker — and younger — Americans affected by COVID-19 than at the start of the pandemic.

While we won't know the exact toll the pandemic will take on our essential workers, one thing is clear: The COVID-19 outbreak they're experiencing right now on the front lines is a far cry from the original strain. They're scared, exasperated, and crying out for us to pay attention and get vaccinated.

Five health care workers tell WebMD about their experiences working the front lines amid the recent surge and what they think needs to happen — fast.

COVID-19 Perspective From a Paramedic in Connecticut

Michael Battistelli has been an EMS for over 20 years and a licensed paramedic in Stratford, CT , for a decade. He's also the father of a 5-year-old daughter who isn't eligible for a vaccination yet. For him, every day has been the same since the start of the pandemic: Surgical mask, N95 mask, face shield, change clothes before going home, and shower as soon as he walks in the door. He's worried about Delta right now and wants you to be, too.

What keeps him up at night: "It seems like the last time, COVID-19 hit the Pacific Northwest and Northeast first. I hope it's not the reverse and that it isn't working its way back up to us here in Connecticut. I'll add that if we start seeing young people dying, that might be it for me. That might be my final stand as an EMS."

Why he's frustrated: "For people to say COVID-19 isn't real is mind-blowing. I've been at this for over a year, and all I think about is how to keep my daughter safe and protect my parents, especially my mom, who is a cancer survivor. When this first started, I brought people into the hospital who thought they would be fine after a day or week in the hospital. They ended up being on ventilators for months — and these were healthy people."

What he wants to see: "I try not to judge people, but please understand how hard health care workers are working. We're fatigued and burned out, and we are begging you: Please get vaccinated."

COVID-19 Perspective From an ICU Director in Tennessee

Todd Rice, MD, is an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville . While this father of two — ages 15 and 17 — trained for a pandemic, specifically Ebola and H1N1, the sheer volume of young COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit right now is taking a huge toll on him and his staff.

Why he's frustrated: "First, there are a group of people that are adamantly against getting vaccinated. It doesn't matter what we do or say. Second, a lot of people are confused and tell me that they don't have somebody they trust to answer their questions about the vaccine. Third, some of this is driven by our colleagues: In the last 2 weeks, eight pregnant women with COVID-19 were admitted to our ICU. At least six said that their OB [obstetrician] told them not to get the vaccine while pregnant. That myth is still out there."

What's going on in the ICU: "I want people to know that our unvaccinated infected COVID-19 patients are the sickest patients we take care of. Their condition can change on a dime. We think they're getting better, and suddenly we turn around and they're near death or they die in seconds. What's hard for our staff is that many of these patients have been with us for several weeks, and we get to know them. So when this happens, it hurts us even more because we've gotten to know them."

What we need to do: "While it may take time, we have to talk to vaccine-hesitant people one by one and ask them what questions they have and then provide them with the answers they need. I think the next 6 months is going to be all about getting people who are still moveable on this and get them to be comfortable that the vaccine is safe, that we didn't cut corners. Yes, it was developed faster than anything we've ever done before, but that's because it had to be."

COVID-19 Perspective From a Cardiopulmonary Doctor in Florida

Yvonne Billings, MD, director of cardiopulmonary medicine at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health in Stuart, FL , says the "explosion" of COVID-19 cases right after July 4 has left her and her staff emotionally and physically overwhelmed.

What worries her: "We have great PPE, but we're all worries because Delta is so contagious, and our colleagues have gotten it. We'll eat lunch next to each other — socially distanced, of course — and we won't know if we've gotten it by just sitting down to eat."

What she wants us to do — now: "Everyone needs to listen to the real medical science and understand how much this is impacting everyone's care. For example, if you need to come to the hospital for something other than COVID-19, you will receive slower care because everyone is so tied up caring for COVID-19 patients."

Health care workers need to get on board, too: "I look at some of my respiratory therapists who chose not to be vaccinated until this last surge. Many told me that when the younger patients started coming in, they could relate to that. One said, 'I see this gentleman is 27. I'm 27. I could be in the exact same position.' I don't want to see anyone get sick, but I'm hoping that when people see that this affects anyone at any age, they can push politics and what they thought was true about the vaccine aside, and make different choices and move forward."

COVID-19 Perspective From a Registered Nurse in Louisiana

Gina McNemar, 37, an ICU nurse at Baton Rouge General Medical Center in Baton Rouge, LA , is wiped out. Her ICU unit is currently full of COVID-19 patients. This mom of 5-year-old twins is so upset about the onslaught of patients in her unit that she sent an email to the CEO of the hospital, which he then shared on Facebook with hundreds of followers. Here's an excerpt:

"This Covid is different. Let me repeat myself: THIS COVID IS NOT THE SAME. … For the first time since April 2020, I kneeled on top of a patient in the middle of CPR and saw myself. She was 41 years old, no comorbidities, a full life ahead of her. The first time we fought Covid, everyone was old and sickly. They weren't ‘me.' This sweet woman was 'me.' We ran a full code on her for 1 hour and 26 minutes in front of her fiancé. He cried out to God to save her. He cried out to us to save her. We did everything in our power to save her. We weren't able to. Three nurses, a pharmacy tech, an X-ray tech, and our HMG doctor hugged, prayed, and cried together after. She was living her life, got Covid, and died."

Why she wants people to pay attention: "Our COVID-19 patients are young, they're healthy, they're able to answer our questions and immediately crash. We don't have time to catch our breath between one code to the next. This COVID-19 is a much more violent disease, and I can no longer keep quiet. Someone has to say it. Someone has to say, ‘You can believe what you want to believe,' but I'm seeing it with my own eyes, I'm holding their hands while they die, I'm bagging their body for the morgue. See this crisis through my eyes — please!"

What's happening with her co-workers: "We've had some pretty bad days. We're all crying and we're afraid for each other now. We feel like it could be any of us at any point. I'm feeling that I don't want to let it get to me, but it is. At home, we pray every night. The other night, one of my twins said, ‘I pray that you don't get coronavirus and die.' I can't help but think: 5-year-olds should pray for unicorns and rainbows, not that their mom could die at work."

Please stop playing politics: "America has become so divided and the vaccine somehow became the evil thing instead of the fact that the vaccine is the savior. I waited in line to get my vaccine because the scientists came up with something to end all this, but not everyone sees it that way. I feel like people don't want to see and it shouldn't matter if you're a Republican or Democrat — after all, Biden is vaccinated [and] Trump is vaccinated."

COVID-19 Perspective From an ER Doctor in New York City

Amanda Smith, MD, an emergency room doctor at Staten Island University Hospital in Staten Island, NY , says she's sensing a "slow wave coming" when it comes to the Delta variant. The mom of three kids (she has 10-year-old twins and a 12-year-old) thinks often of the first signs of COVID-19 in 2020 and hopes that there won't be a repeat surge like the initial one in New York City.

It's hard not to feel frustrated: "I'm annoyed about the Delta variant. Of course, I've experienced the ‘I'm not getting the vaccine' argument, and I've been at this long enough that I'm able to compartmentalize my own feelings, but I'm worn down, and I'm aware that I have compassion fatigue. When people complain about their COVID-19 symptoms and say things like ‘If I knew I would feel this horrible, I would have gotten the vaccine,' I can't help but feel that this was avoidable. It's hard to talk to those people. I want to say ‘600,000 dead people weren't enough to get vaccinated?'"

The people avoiding the vaccine: "There are the absolute deniers who will never get vaccinated and aren't going to change their minds. Then there are the people who feel invincible, and then there are the folks who think that COVID-19 isn't that bad, it's just like the flu, it's only old people dying and they're not getting information from an appropriate source. It's not the flu, it does kill you. Delta kills younger people, and it's very easy to spread. Every one person who was infected with the original strain could infect two to three others. The Delta variant can infect eight to nine, and measles, at 13, is the most contagious, so we need to keep reminding people about this."

It's not just about you: "Vaccination campaigns were never about the individual. We live together in a civilized society, and the vaccine is something you do for each other. People don't understand the importance of breaking the chain of transmission and doing this to help each other and eradicate the spread. I just don't understand what happened to us that we forgot this."

Sources:

Michael Battistelli, licensed paramedic, emergency medical services instructor, Stratford, CT.

Todd Rice, MD, associate professor of medicine, Division of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care; and medical director COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit, Vanderbilt Medical Center, Nashville.

Yvonne Billings, MD, director of cardiopulmonary medicine, Cleveland Clinic Martin Health, Stuart, FL.

Gina McNemar, ICU nurse, Baton Rouge General Medical Center, Baton Rouge, LA.

Amanda Smith, MD, emergency room doctor, Staten Island University Hospital, Staten Island, NY.

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