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‘He knew he was going to die, it was just when’: Nurses concerned about unvaccinated COVID-19 patients

Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 7:43 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - COVID-19 cases are increasing across West Virginia, with the highly contagious delta variant putting many more unvaccinated patients in the hospital.

Nurses are being asked by their patients if it’s too late to get a COVID-19 vaccine as a treatment instead of being put on a ventilator. At Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds are being filled back up with COVID-19 patients, after months of only having a few extremely sick people.

“The handful of patients who we have had recently, all of them are young, otherwise healthy lived and independent lifestyles,” ICU nurse Taylor Krisher said about unvaccinated patients. “It’s hard for me because I see it. I work with patients who are so sick I can’t leave the room for 12 hours.”

Krisher said most of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients are younger people who did not want to get vaccinated against the deadly virus. After battling for their life, a number of patients have told Krisher and her co-workers that they regret not getting a shot.

West Virginia COVID-19 data shows only 49 percent of residents are currently fully vaccinated.

A COVID-19 vaccine will not completely prevent someone from getting sick, Krisher said, but it will limit symptoms to keep most patients from ending up isolated from their family in the ICU for months on end. The hospital also has a limited number of staff and equipment that can provide the care necessary to keep these extremely sick COVID-19 patients from dying.

“The kids and other relatives were saying goodbye to him,” Krisher recalled one unvaccinated COVID-19 patient she was caring for on FaceTime before he died. “I was having to push medicine just to keep him alive long enough that he was able to say goodbye.”

“He knew he was going to die, it was just when,” ICU nurse Chelsea Ebbert said choking up while thinking about another unvaccinated patient. “Then it was like, ‘OK, I want to get it to this holiday so I can spend some time with my family. I want to be able to watch the Super Bowl before I die.’ Just little things like that. It’s just hard.”

Ebbert said every patient she has cared for that was not vaccinated regretted their decision, and a number of patient’s family members have also decided to go get vaccinated after seeing their loved one’s condition. Many of these are people in their 30s or younger who were not significantly at risk from previous COVID-19 variants, but the delta variant targets.

“By getting the vaccine you can be protecting other people,” Ebbert said. “Your parents, your grandparents, with this new delta variant it could be children. Just maybe, think of somebody other than yourself.”

“A lot of the younger patients that we see, they don’t think it is going to happen to them,” ICU nurse Morgan Knox said. “They say that, ‘I am young, why would this happen to me?’ And then as soon as life hits and they are like, ‘oh this can happen to me,’ they’re like, ‘I wish I had just gotten it.’ They think about this completely differently. They are educating their families. They’re educating their friends that this is real.”

Knox said if a patient is lucky enough to leave the ICU, they talk about eventually getting a COVID-19 vaccine. She understands the concerns around vaccination side effects, but said it is the best option for people to avoid getting in a life threatening condition.

“When the patient gets to the point where they are needing to be on the ventilator and you’re the only person who is there with them, and sometimes these patients aren’t coming off the ventilator,” ICU nurse Lauren Sanetrik said. “They either pass away or they end up getting a tracheostomy, so trying to get that phone call in with their loved ones right before they are intubated and put on the ventilator is really important, because that might be the last time that they actually get to speak to their family.”

“The hospital doesn’t slow down,” Sanetrik continued. “The unit is still trying to take care of everyone else who is sick, not just people with COVID, so it is a lot of people unfortunately having to wait to get into the ICU because we don’t have a bed to take care of them. We still have to take care of all the other patients that are still here, and when we do take care of the COVID patients, we are trying to be very careful of not bringing it home to our families. That is very stressful, too.”

The Ruby Memorial staff has worked very long hours over the past 18 months to care for the COVID-19 patients on top of other sick people. ICU nurse manager Chris Lindsey said the hospital has been stretched to its limits and is concerned what another bad wave of the virus could do, but he knows they can get through it if the public does its part and gets a COVID vaccination.

“We’ve been resilient,” Lindsey said. “We have come together as a team and a health system to take care of these patients just like they have around the world. Hopefully, this delta variant we are already seeing the worst of it. We don’t know what the future holds, but we will do the best we can to provide great care.”

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources COVID-19 dashboard said 178 people are hospitalized as of Tuesday afternoon due to COVID-19, and 64 of those patients are in the ICU.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department said an unvaccinated 74-year-old man died from COVID-19 on Tuesday.

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