The COVID-19 pandemic has strained hospitals and their staffs across the United States for nearly a year and half.
Health care workers say they want people who have questions or concerns about the COVID vaccine to ask them about it, but emergency room and intensive care nurses rarely get that chance.
In this edition of Sound Health, Marissa Smith at Carle BroMenn Medical Center said she’s had difficult conversations with COVID-19 patients over the vaccine. A vast majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 right now are unvaccinated.
Smith doesn’t believe in blaming anyone for their personal decisions, but said by the time patients get to the ICU, it’s too late for them to change their mind.
“There have been times patients have asked us for the vaccine and they are already critically ill and it’s too late.”
Marissa Smith, Carle BroMenn
“There have been times patients have asked us for the vaccine and they are already critically ill and it’s too late,” Smith said. “That can get heart-wrenching because you know where they are at, and that they are scared and they are reaching out for a life raft that isn’t actually there.”
Smith said there’s a lack of health literacy in the U.S., noting many people are getting health care information from family, friends, social media and other outlets that might not always be reliable.
Alizarin Salmi is an emergency room nurse at Carle BroMenn. When she has patients that ask her about the vaccine, she tries to address their concerns with facts based in science, but said it’s up to patients to decide for themselves.
“Ultimately it is their decision and nursing has to be impartial. We take care of people who make all kinds of life decisions that lead them to the ER or the ICU, and your care is completely separate from your beliefs,” Salmi said.
Just over 50% of McLean County residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Smith said another reason she would like to see more people get the COVID vaccine is that it will bring a faster end to the pandemic and the restrictions that have also taken their toll on health care workers, patients and their families. She said a ban on visitors and a mask requirement for staff has had a devastating impact on some patients who need human connection during a difficult time.
“I can’t even describe how it is for patients who see my coworkers come in and they never know what we look like,” Smith said. “They can see our eyes through our goggles and that’s about it. I just think about the lack of actual human contact they have is heart wrenching.”
Smith said that has caused anxiety and depression for some patients, adding virtual visits with loved ones can only help so much.
As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rise again, health care workers feel the stress of a pandemic that’s nearly 18 months old and showing no signs of ending.
Salmi said the key is to stay positive.
“It would be impossible not to be frustrated at times with the situation,” Salmi said. “I think that we always take the new information and process it and then regroup.”
Salmi works the overnight shift in the ER. She said the recent rise in COVID cases has made the ER even busier since staff also still has to treat victims of heart attack, strokes, car accidents and other emergencies.
Salmi said one of the biggest changes for medical staff during the pandemic is the need to wear masks, goggles and other PPE (personal protective equipment) before they can treat a patient.
“That goes against our human nature as nurses. We just want to run in and save the patient,” Salmi said. “We’re still doing that, but it has added so many steps we didn’t have before.”
Smith said she hopes what health care has learned from the pandemic will become a “generational lesson” that will help future societies prepare for pandemics and disease outbreaks.
“There are a lot of really good things that have come out of this with our teaching of children hand washing,” Smith said. “Hygiene is a big thing I don’t think we really understood how big it was.”
Smith said those hygiene techniques showed they also can reduce your risk for catching the flu and the common cold.