‘We are losing nurses at a staggering rate’: frontline nurses, doctors work to keep up with increasing COVID cases


INDIANAPOLIS — A steady increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are falling on a hurting industry — healthcare nurses and doctors.

“I mean the morale is plummeting,” said Dr. Louis Profeta with St. Vincent Hospital. “We are losing nurses at a staggering rate.”

Having served as an emergency room physician for more than three decades, Dr. Profeta said he has always taken pride in knowing he would likely never get burnout doing what he loves.

“I still love it, I’ll still show up, but the physicality is getting to the point where even I’m starting to go ‘man, how long can I do this?” said Dr. Profeta.

It is a question many frontline workers have found themselves asking. Since the pandemic began, thousands of healthcare workers have exited the industry. Now, those that weathered the first wave are being met with another.

“We’re exhausted,” said registered nurse Jessica Kunkel. “Compassion fatigue is real. Moral distress is real.”

Kunkel said she and her colleagues often work multiple 12-hour days to care for some of the sickest COVID-19 patients in Franciscan Health’s Cardiac Critical Care Unit.

 “We see the sickest of the sick. When you get sick — this sick — there’s no coming back from that,” said Kunkel. “CPR is not fun. Coding a person is not fun. Once you get to the ICU-level of care, it’s hard and it’s hard on us.”

Kunkel said it is hard to hear stories of COVID-19 patients not getting vaccinated when they could have.

“Now they’re very sick and expecting us to save them and that makes it very hard for us to have that compassion. We’ll always take care of you the best we can but that compassion is a little bit gone,” said Kunkel. “Once you get it, we just treat the symptoms. We can’t heal it, we can’t give you drugs, we don’t have anything. We just try to support you through it and hope your body can recover. And that feels like torture a lot of the times.”

 “We’re done having these debates,” said Dr. Profeta. “I mean the data is clear.”

Dr. Profeta acknowledged there are several valid reasons why someone many choose to not get vaccinated against COVID-19, including religious or cultural beliefs. However, he said a vast majority of those still unvaccinated are following misinformation on social media.

“I think there’s just some people who are just plain wrong,” said Dr. Profeta. “It’s sad. We’re watching these people die and, you know, what more could you tell people?”

“I just want people to know the vaccine works,” said Kunkel. “How could you say no to a vaccine and then come into the hospital and ask us to give you experimental drugs to treat [COVID-19]? There’s less research with these experimental drugs that you think are going to help than there are with the vaccine.”

According to a spokesperson with Franciscan Health, there are “hundreds” of open positions across all 12 hospitals it operates. Meanwhile, hospitalizations have only continued to increase — jumping from the single digits in July to now roughly 40 hospitalizations a month later.

Dr. Douglas Webb, medical director of Infection Prevention at IU Health, said IU’s hospitals statewide have seen steady increases in hospitalizations and ventilator use, but less deaths than with the previous waves.

In a written statement, Dr. Webb writes:

“IU Health hospitals throughout the state (collectively) today have about 60% of their peak COVID19+ census (last winter) – it has been steadily rising from a low of about 15% of our peak just a few months ago (with the Delta surge). 90-95% of hospitalized cases are unvaccinated.  Dr. Lindsey Weaver shared statewide data last night at the IHA, showing this was about 95+% unvaccinated statewide over the past 2 months.  It is very clear that, even with nearly all cases being due to the Delta variant, COVID19 vaccinations really have prevented hospitalizations, severe illnesses and deaths.”

Dr. Douglas Webb
Medical Director of Infection Prevention at IU Health

At Community Health Network, the number of COVID patients admitted to the hospital has tripled over the past month. The hospital’s director of corporate communications writes:

“Community Health Network, like hospitals around the state, have seen a steady increase in the number of COVID-positive patients admitted to our hospitals… Our current COVID hospitalizations are at numbers we haven’t seen since January of this year.  Our peak COVID hospitalizations were in late December, 2020. 98-99% of our hospitalized COVID patients are NOT vaccinated.”

Kris Kirschner
Director of Corporate Communications, Community Health Network

“My partners — St. Vincent’s emergency physicians — we’re still going to be here. We’re gonna still fight this thing until the end,” said Dr. Profeta. ” But man the end is creeping up on us and we need some help.”

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