‘Not again’: Nurses face burnout as Delta surge fills hospital beds

MADISON, Wis. – The Delta surge is translating into more COVID-19 hospitalizations, with the number of patients in ICU beds in south central Wisconsin about tripling in the past month.

According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the 7-day average of COVID patients in the ICU in the region was 10 on July 24. That jumped to 33 on Aug. 24, the latest day shown in the data.

COVID hospitalizations in general were growing by 41% in the region between Aug. 11 and Aug. 24, according to DHS. Across the state, 88.5% of hospital beds and 92.1% of ICU beds are currently in use.

“Nobody likes those many beds full,” said Gina Dennik-Champion, executive director of the Wisconsin Nurses Association, which represents the interests of the state’s about 90,000 registered nurses. “It’s hard to get the nurses that you need in order to take care of those patients.”

For many nurses, it’s starting to feel like the start of the pandemic back in March 2020 again, but without the initial outpouring of support.

“It’s serious here,” said SSM Health St. Mary’s ICU Nurse Alex Finch. “It’s sad. It’s hard. It’s heavy work.”

After five years in her position, that work still weighs on Finch, piling on over months of the pandemic.

“To find ourselves in this situation again is hard,” she said. “I think a lot of us hoped that when it kind of reared its head again that we would be really equipped again to deal with it, because we had this little kind of lull of restful period. It’s very hard to be back in this. It can feel hopeless sometimes. It’s hard to feel there’s an end in sight.”

Long after long hours at St. Mary’s COVID unit, moments with her patients stick with her.

“They tell us their last wishes or their last words,” Finch said. “You pass those along to family, but they stay in your heart and they stay in your head at least 18 months so far.”

Finch and other nurses can carry post-traumatic stress and burnout as they walk back into units of beds filling with patients of all ages.

“What I’m hearing is ‘not again.’ … They wonder whether they’re going to get through it this time,” Dennik-Champion said. “I think they’re not feeling valued. COVID keeps coming and coming and there are solutions to that.”

She said one solution – vaccination – can make life easier for nurses and patients alike.

“It’s the people not vaccinated that are coming in very, very sick, some having a long-term illness as a result,” Dennik-Champion said.

In St. Mary’s ICU, Finch talks to patients who she said previously didn’t believe in the illness or vaccine to prevent it.

“They say, ‘I was wrong, please please,’ they’re calling their families saying, ‘please go get vaccinated. I was wrong,’” Finch said. “What I take away from that and try to spread awareness in that regard is it’s OK to change your tune.”

When the light at the end of the tunnel seems more distant, Finch and coworkers find ways to lighten the load, celebrating events such as birthdays, anniversaries and graduations from the ICU in any way they can, including virtually.

“Someone’s son was graduating high school and was speaking, so we were able to get him cleaned up really nice sitting up really tall, and he was so proud sitting in there,” Finch said. “Things like that definitely help.”

She also recalls a time when a waitress recognized her as once being her ICU nurse. That conversation ended in happy tears, and Finch learned her former patient has since decided to pursue a nursing career.

Finch carries those good moments, too, as a boost when work gets heavy.

“Stuff like that kind of gets you through,” she said.