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'I've Never Seen Anything Like This': Health Care Workers Stretched By Crisis

These past few weeks have brought unprecedented strain for front-line medical workers in Connecticut’s hospitals and nursing homes. It’s also been a period of innovation in the health care industry, as facilities both try to support their staff -- and stretch them far beyond their previous clinical experience.

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“This is nothing like anything I’ve experienced,” said Sara Newman, a nurse for 39 years. She’s now a nurse manager for Yale New Haven Hospital. “I lived through the AIDS crisis in the ’80s in New York. We’ve had H1N1. I was here in the hospital during 9/11 waiting for ambulances to come from New York. But I’ve never seen anything like this.” 

With so many critically ill patients, her greatest need is for highly trained ICU nurses.

Because of the nature of the virus, the challenges in the workplace extend across front-line workers’ lives.

“They’re also facing some challenges of being away from their home or their family for an extended period of time because of potential exposure to COVID,” said Paul Kidwell of the Connecticut Hospital Association.

He was particularly struck by the story of one nurse at Bristol Health. “She’s a grandmother -- she has five grandchildren -- and one of the personal struggles is not being able to be close to them at this time.”

Actually contracting the disease is no theoretical risk. 

“We’re staffing adequately at best, but at the current times we are seeing a large proportion of our health care workers who are getting very sick with this virus, despite taking excellent precautions,” said Dr. Cheema Faiqa, an infectious disease specialist at Hartford HealthCare.

Hartford HealthCare’s chief clinical officer, Dr. Ajay Kumar, says they’ve tried to address many of these difficulties through a support center and a 24-hour phone line for staff “who are going through emotional challenges, having difficulty coping at this time, maybe having a challenge with child care, or a place to stay overnight after a long shift. We’re making sure that hotels are provided for individuals, to provide the break rooms access, and food and support.”

Connecticut’s hospitals have very visibly built out physical surge capacity, with new intensive care units and even cardboard beds set up at the state’s convention center and university field houses. Yale New Haven Health, the state’s second-largest hospital system, says it’s doubled its ICU capacity across all of its hospitals.

But surge capacity in terms of front-line doctors and nurses is harder to construct.

Dr. Tom Balcezak, chief clinical officer for Yale New Haven Health, says they’ve had to get creative.

“We have credentialed 500 physicians in an emergency way to do things in units they hadn’t been previously credentialed to do,” he said.

Those types of retraining and emergency certifications have been supported by state officials. Vicki Veltri of the Department of Public Health said her office has tried hard to lift restrictions where possible.

“So whether it’s scope of practice rules or licensing in another state versus Connecticut, or if someone has to go through a certain level of testing, I think we’ve done everything we can to try to source enough health care workers,” she said.

Another avenue of aid for hard-pressed hospitals has been to bring in staff from other institutions, or even ask others to come out of retirement.

Merima Sestovic is an infection preventionist from Stamford Health.

“We have also reached out to the community, to other institutions, health care workers, when we got our first wave, and we thought that we were at the peak compared to others, and asked for assistance on staffing like respiratory therapists,” she said. “We’ve been fortunate a lot of community physicians and some of the community nurses who have retired have volunteered to come and work bedside.”

She has been touched by the response -- but not surprised.

“I tell you, the outpour of the assistance and the help has been immense. I think, health care workers, you go into this profession for a reason, because you’re caring and compassionate and you want to help.”

As Hartford and other parts of the state in turn begin to reach their peak of cases, the strain on the state’s health care front-line workers looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Additional reporting by Diane Orson, Nicole Leonard and the New England News Collaborative.

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