‘Burnout’: As COVID-19 hospitalizations rise, concerns of staff handling another surge mount

In Dane County, hospitalizations, even in the ICU, are as high as they've been since January - and nearly five times what they were in July.

(Note: This story is part one of a two-part series comprised of interviews completed during a tour of UW-Health’s COVID-19 ward.)

MADISON, Wis. – As the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues its spread throughout Wisconsin, hospitals are once again filling with patients infected with the virus.

In Dane County, hospitalizations, even in the ICU, are as high as they’ve been since January – and nearly five times what they were in July.

It’s been discouraging to say the least,” said Samantha Murray-Bainer, a UW Health Hospitalist.  “Honestly, it’s been difficult lately. We’ve had to increase the amount of doctors that are working every day and increase the amount of hours some of us are working to cover.”

Murray-Bainer says in the past, some staff would volunteer to cover the extra shifts. After 18 months, fewer are.

“People are just getting burnt out and not want to volunteer anymore,” she said. “Our group is definitely tired. We’d like a break. We wish the community knew we had their best interest in mind- we’re not trying to hurt anyone’s rights by any means.”

Nearly every patient seen hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms is unvaccinated. Murray-Bainer says her frustrations go larger than each individual’s personal choice.

“I think people are being set up to fail by what they see on Facebook or hear on Twitter,” she said. “People have many reasons to not get vaccinated – some are more legitimate than others, I suppose….It is course difficult to care for people who could have prevented their illness, but we can’t go back and know what they were thinking when they made that choice.”

Staffing concerns are shared by a number of UW Health staff, including Chief Quality Officer Dr. Jeff Pothof.

I worry about working our staff so hard that they’re stressed out and struggling to get the energy to come to work every day,” Pothof said. “The pandemic further compounds that.”

FROM NOVEMBER 2020: As COVID hospitalizations in Dane Co reach record high, UW Hospital opens second critical care area for COVID patients

While the hospital could expand to further treat additional patients, Pothof says beds aren’t the concern – it’s having the staff to care for them.

Staff is certainly the thing that concerns me more than physical space,” he said. “We have these plans, we’re good at converting space, it’s not infinite. I don’t have infinite space, but my ability or our team’s ability to create space is probably better than our ability to create the staffing.”

Murray-Bainer says the main concern for much of the staff inside the hospital is contracting a breakthrough case of the virus. While she is vaccinated, she says she worries for her one-year-old child, who is too young to get the shot.

It’s hard when you’re coming to work and you’re putting yourself at risk, and you might accidentally contract it somehow, or contract it in the community,” she said. 

There are key differences between this surge and the surge last year, Pothof said. Namely, the ability to treat patients with other illnesses while maintaining expanded COVID-19 care. Murray-Bainer says this ability is wasted if beds can’t be successfully staffed.

There’s plenty of times where there’s physical hospital beds that are open for patients but we don’t have the staff to actually take care of people in them,” she said. “That’s very frustrating when we feel like we’re bursting at the seams, you see these open beds, but there’s no one to take care of people.”

 I fear you’re going to start to lose a lot of great nurses, respiratory therapists, physicians, and everyone else who takes care of these patients – just from burnout,” Murray-Bainer said. “At this point, we need to put the safety of our community and the safety of our children, the safety of our elderly patients, the safety of our patients with cancer, other illnesses that prevent them from having a strong immune system. We need to put them above our own personal rights, or above our personal political feelings about this pandemic and this vaccine, and do the right thing.”