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Kansas City Nurses Are Overworked And Traumatized By 'Avoidable' Pandemic Surge

A health care worker wearing a face mask and head covering sits on a bench in a white room with his head down and fingers interlocked.
Jonathan Borba
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Healthcare professionals worry about the long-term mental health impact the coronavirus will have on nurses.

Increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations put increased mental strain on nurses, healthcare professionals say.

The pandemic has already been tough on nurses, but recent trends of rising hospitalizations and COVID-19 denial have made some nurses reconsider the profession.

Heidi Lucas, state director of the Missouri Nurses’ Association, said Monday on KCUR’s Up To Date that nurses are frustrated that the pandemic is once again intensifying, despite the availability of vaccines.

“Everybody's spirits were very much lifted whenever (the vaccine) was approved, and they started getting them. And then just to see, you know, we've not had the numbers of people taking the vaccine as we would have thought,” Lucas said. “That really has shattered a lot of our nurses.”

Nurses experience traumatic events with their patients, Lucas explained, citing a now-frequent experience of having patients sick with severe COVID-19 symptoms beg them for the vaccine.

“They are seeing it over and over again. And it’s, it’s the stuff of nightmares,” Lucas said.

She said many nurses can no longer sleep as a result.

Trina Teacutter is the nursing supervisor for the Columbia Boone County Health Department and chair of the Statewide Public Health Nurse Council. She echoed Lucas’s concerns that the vitriol of COVID-19 denial has demoralized health care providers.

“A lot of health department administrators have left their posts,” Teacutter said, “simply because of, you know, the anger and the accusations and all the hatred that they’ve received from community members.”

People hang up on nurses when they perform contact tracing, for example. Some call the COVID-19 pandemic a hoax; many accuse nurses of trying to poison people.

Teacutter herself says she’s had “no balance” in her life since the pandemic began. Her efforts to make sure her nurses have time to rest come at the expense of her own chance for respite.

“I don’t get to see my family as much. I work a lot of hours. And those things that normally are recharging for me, I don’t really get to do,” Teacutter said. “I think that’s the way it is for a lot of people. I don’t think I’m unique in that.”

The pressure has been causing nurses to quit, according to Teacutter, leaving already short-staffed health departments in a dire situation. A recent University of Missouri and Missouri State Board of Nursing study showed that out of Missouri’s 114 counties, 97 have a nursing shortage.

Both experts weighing in expressed hope that more vaccinations can still end the pandemic. Teacutter doesn’t expect to persuade COVID-19 deniers; current efforts focus instead on people who are on the fence about getting the vaccine, with potential for each successful vaccination to motivate many more.

“Every person that we can get vaccinated is one less patient that those nurses have to take care of,” Teacutter says. “One less patient that they have to have that conversation with and put someone on a ventilator, or have to, you know, explain to the family that, you know, that that person may not make it.”

During a Monday news briefing, Dr. Steven Stites of the University of Kansas emphasized the importance of wellness and mental health for healthcare professionals.

“I’ll tell you, this surge -- this has been a lot harder, I think in many ways, on our teams than the last one,” he said, noting that the latest uptick carries the added frustration of being “avoidable.”

Stites urges his staff to sleep more, eat better, get exercise and rest to combat the “emotional toil” of working on the frontlines, but Lucas also argues that hospitals and states should offer long term mental health care for frontline workers to help nurses through their trauma. PTSD caused by working during the pandemic may affect nurses’ lives many years after the fact.

“Really, the only comparison is for folks who are working in war zones, or natural disasters,” Lucas said.

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