Opinion: Marathon pandemic is crushing hospital staff; here are 5 ways to help them out

Since COVID-19 arrived in our region nearly two years ago, Southcoast Health has depended on the community to help fight a pandemic that has sickened and killed too many of our family members, neighbors and friends.

Once again, we need the public's assistance to lessen the burden on our hospitals and emergency departments, which are stretched to capacity and struggling to provide care to all the patients who rely on us.

There are many reasons for this crisis. The highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus has overlapped with the severe Delta variant, sending record numbers of COVID-positive patients to our hospitals. A tight labor market has taken COVID-weary nurses, technicians and support staff from hospital service into work outside the region or outside of healthcare. At the same time, this marathon public health crisis has exacerbated already existing gaps in health care throughout the region.

Our ability to care for the sick is being challenged as never before. Doctors and nurses are working overtime. Staff are voluntarily redeploying to assist frontline clinicians. Members of the National Guard are transporting patients, stocking shelves and providing security in waiting rooms. We are grateful for their assistance, but it is not enough. We need help.

Here are five things people can do.

First, help care for a relative.

Consider taking in a relative who is being discharged from the hospital and needs a place to recover. Southcoast has hospital beds occupied by patients who could be discharged but have nowhere to go. Skilled nursing facilities are full or have limited staffing. For some patients who live alone, recovering at home is not an option. Taking in family could speed recovery and avoid risks associated with healthcare facilities. By caring for a relative at home, you could free up a bed for someone waiting for hospital admission.

Second, care for yourself.

Get yourself vaccinated against COVID and the flu. One in three patients being tested at Southcoast is positive for COVID-19, and we are seeing increasing cases of influenza. Both are preventable.

In a single day in January, 11 patients died of COVID-19 at Southcoast. Every one of them was unvaccinated. This takes a terrible toll on patients, families, nurses and providers. Our providers repeatedly hear patients beg for the vaccine when they are critically ill with COVID and it is too late. We see members of the same family get COVID and need ICU care. We see friends on ventilators lie across from one another in the ICU. We work relentlessly to care for patients who do not survive. For staff who have dedicated their lives to healing, seeing patients unwilling to vaccinate die before their eyes is crushing.

If you are fully vaccinated, please get a booster shot when you are eligible. Only 3 percent of the COVID-positive patients in our hospitals have been boosted and none has been in the ICU for COVID. On the other hand, unvaccinated people are 31 times more likely to be severely ill and require hospitalization.

Third, avoid COVID-19 risks.

The illness is not inevitable if you wear a mask indoors in public, especially when you cannot socially distance. A good-fitting mask such as a N-95 or KN-95 will help protect you from severe disease. During this outbreak, we advise extra caution about gatherings with people you don’t know.

Fourth, use healthcare services wisely.

Southcoast’s urgent care clinics can treat cuts, broken bones, rashes or other non-life-threatening problems. Save 911 calls and emergency department visits for life-threatening events like shortness of breath, chest pain and stroke symptoms. If you think you have COVID-19, call your primary care provider or Southcoast’s COVID Hotline and Triage — 508-973-1919 — for advice. If you do not have risk factors like chronic disease and you think you may need COVID testing, please don’t come unannounced to an emergency department or urgent care clinic unless you have severe symptoms such as shortness of breath.

Finally, in the face of waits and delays, please show patience and kindness to our staff.

They are battling this pandemic every day with skill, grit and compassion. They have faced more trauma and tragedy in 22 months than clinicians with 30-year healthcare careers. A word of understanding or appreciation will brighten their day.

From the first case of COVID-19 at Southcoast in early 2020, the community showed its support by donating equipment, food and water. People flew red Southcoast Health flags, posted signs and wrote letters of support. This put wind in the sails of healthcare workers doing all they could against long odds.

Two years later, as we serve the community through this latest COVID outbreak, we need the public's support more than ever. The current hospital surge is expected to continue into February, after which it is expected to start to ease.

It is an honor to serve the community in this time of need. Please help preserve our capacity to care by helping us in these five ways.

Dr. Dani Hackner is the Chief Clinical Officer for Southcoast Health.

This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Opinion: Marathon pandemic is crushing hospital staff; 5 ways to help