State data show that COVID-19 hospitalizations in Pennsylvania have increased by more than 500 percent since the beginning of November. But administrators of the state’s largest hospital system continue to say that staff are capable of handling this significant influx of patients.
At a Dec. 8 news conference, UPMC’s Senior Vice President Leslie Davis said, despite this increase, there’s a “calm feeling” across the system.
“There is no need to feel nervous or anxious,” said Davis. “We are not overwhelmed by this virus.”
Jodi Faltin cares for COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit at UPMC Shadyside, and recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Tribune Review saying she disagrees with this characterization.
Faltin talked with 90.5 WESA health and science reporter Sarah Boden about what it’s like to care for COVID patients during this ongoing surge.
Their conversation has beed edited for length and clarity.
BODEN: UPMC’s Leslie Davis made these comments on December 8th. What was it like to be an ICU nurse in early December?
FALTIN: In early December, it had gotten pretty bad. Everyone in my ICU and others were working overtime. We had opened up a makeshift ICU for COVID patients outside of the emergency department, and we were all asked to give up one nurse from each ICU to staff that new [unit]. But ... these rooms are not made for ICU patients. The doors don't even close all the way, and we're expected to have [stringent] infection control. We weren't able to maintain any of the things that we had been used, to as nurses, taking care of these patients in any other ICU.
BODEN: So, when you heard Miss Davis make these comments, what was your reaction?
FALTIN: I was appalled. I'm pretty protective over a lot of the nurses that I work with. A lot of them are younger than me, and a lot of them felt the same way that I did, too, but everyone was afraid to say anything.
Boden: State data show that hospitalizations have started to decline a bit, especially in the last week or so of December. UPMC says only about one-quarter of COVID patients are sick enough to be sent to the ICU. So, have things gotten better?
FALTIN: I will say that we’ve had a few more open beds, but we've also had a lot of people pass away that make for those empty beds.
BODEN: How does caring for a COVID patient differ from a non COVID patient in the ICU?
FALTIN: It's hard because we have to keep the doors closed. It's very lonely for the patients if they're alert enough to know what's going on. It's hard if ... an alarm is going off or something is happening with the patient, you can't just rush it. You have to put your mask on, you have to put the gloves on, your goggles, your gown, and it takes a lot more of your shift, just trying to keep yourself safe.
BODEN: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's my understanding that COVID patients are dying at higher volumes than other ICU patients, is that correct?
BODEN: So how does that affect you emotionally and mentally?
FALTIN: It's hard because usually on our unit, at least, we would have a death maybe every few weeks, every month we would have a few people pass away. But now, it's multiple times a week you're taking someone to the morgue. You're talking to a family, saying that there's nothing else that we can do, that we're going to make them as comfortable as we can. And there's no time in between each death to kind of collect yourself and mourn for that person that you may have become connected to in some way.
BODEN: What's something that you experienced at work that you wish more people knew about?
FALTIN: I think just that it's not just the nurses that are overwhelmed. It's the physicians, too, who have been picking up extra shifts, who are covering every ICU in the hospital, tending to every emergency that happens throughout the hospital. And sometimes things will happen, like when we had a patient who was crashing, I was stuck in the room with this patient by myself waiting for a physician to come for over a half hour. And I want people to know that it's something that can happen not just to a COVID patient, to any patient in the hospital. We're stretched so thin and we want to provide the best, most compassionate care that we can. And it's hard when you just, there aren't enough hours in the day and there aren't enough of us.
In an emailed statement, UPMC spokesperson Sarah Katz wrote that the system has "no reports of an incident as described,” in reference to Faltin's claim that a physician was unavailable to respond to an emergency for more than 30 minutes.
“Our staffing has and is meeting demands, and our hospitals continue to provide safe care for all patients. However, we recognize that this is a stressful and very challenging time for our dedicated caregivers. They have worked tirelessly caring for patients.”
Katz said UPMC encourages staff to brings concerns up to managers, so that the health system can help provide support and resources.