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ICU Workers Are Quitting Due To Crushing Stress From COVID-19 Surge

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The massive surge in coronavirus cases has left hospitals across the country in a very bad place. ICUs are filling up fast, which is putting more pressure on critical care teams, especially nurses. As Jackie Fortier of member station KPCC reports, some are quitting because of the stress.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: For 10 months, Jun Jai has treated the sickest COVID-19 patients in the ICU. He works at LA County USC Medical Center, one of the county's largest public hospitals.

JUN JAI: Right now, the ICU of crazy.

FORTIER: He thought he'd seen the worst of the pandemic back in July when cases spiked.

JAI: This is so much worse than before.

FORTIER: And it's taking a toll on the staff. Jai says every time he goes to work for another 12-hour shift, two or three other ICU nurses have taken time off.

JAI: All the nurses, they already have started burning out. You can see so many nurses that have depression.

FORTIER: Burnout isn't the only reason for the staffing crisis. During the first week of December, more than 1,700 health care workers across LA County tested positive for the coronavirus. That was double the number from the week before. Like many health care workers who treat COVID patients, Jai has never been tested for the virus by his employer. He has to go to a free testing site on his days off.

JAI: You feel just, like, they're trying to - using you. That's how so many nurses left already.

FORTIER: Jai has been an ICU nurse for more than 10 years. And he's proud of his work. But for the first time ever, he's thinking of quitting. Others already have, like Chanel Rosecrans.

CHANEL ROSECRANS: There eventually came a point where I told myself I have to find a different job because the stress from this is really making me physically sick.

FORTIER: She started working as an overnight ICU nurse in February right before the pandemic hit. Running between rooms, monitoring complicated medications and breathing equipment left her dripping in sweat and afraid that she would contract the virus. Before each shift, she would sit outside the hospital in her parked car filled with dread.

ROSECRANS: I would pray 'til I cried, begging God please not let me lose a patient tonight. I can't take it. I just need my patients to stay alive tonight.

FORTIER: Calling patients' families was also difficult, especially when she had to explain that there was nothing else the medical team could do to keep their loved one alive.

ROSECRANS: We've already done the convalescent plasma. And they've been getting Decadron. And they've been getting remdesivir. They've been getting all the stuff. And it just felt like ticking time bombs. And I didn't want to have to just sit and wait for all these people to pass away.

FORTIER: After more than eight months in the ICU, she quit her job in October. Now Rosecrans works as a surgical nurse for a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. But she still gets contacted by staffing agencies asking her to fill in at local ICUs.

ROSECRANS: I don't see what the point of going right back would be because I feel like they're going to be operating in that crisis mode.

FORTIER: Other nurses are quitting those high-pressure jobs. Megan Brunson is a nurse in Dallas and a board member of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. Brunson says these nurses sometimes need more support.

MEGAN BRUNSON: When you have whole families coming into an ICU many times, that's morally very distressing. You're taking care of the mom, the dad and the adult children all in the same ICU.

FORTIER: She recommends that hospitals take a page out of the military's playbook and have debriefs where nurses are encouraged to talk about what happened on their shift. It can help with the feelings of isolation. And nurses everywhere are hurting.

BRUNSON: There's not a nurse, no matter what their specialty - ICU or not - who is not having COVID in their face every single day.

FORTIER: For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortiér in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "INFINITES")

MARTIN: This story comes from NPR's partnership with KPCC and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "INFINITES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.