‘People are looking for other jobs’: As COVID surges again, frontline staff at UW Health are burning out

Uw Health covid

MADISON, Wis. – Staff at UW Health in Madison say 18 months of constant COVID-19 care have pushed employees to a breaking point.

People are burnt out. People are exhausted,” said Registered Nurse Mackenzie Lee, who joined the staff at UW Health in 2018. “People have compassion fatigue. People who are the nicest people outside of work, they come in, they’re a different person. It’s sad to see. The second surge (of COVID) has only made that 10 times worse.

According to Public Health Madison Dane County, hospitalizations linked to the Coronavirus are higher than they’ve been since January. The 7-day average of COVID patients in the ICU is above 27 – up roughly four times since this point last month.

Every day you come in and there’s more changes,” Lee said. “What is our unit going to look like? How many COVID patients are we going to have? Is the whole unit going to be COVID? Are we going to be short staffed and we’re going to be flexed up and required to care for more patients than we’re supposed to?”

According to Wisconsin DHS, less than 10 percent of ICU beds remain statewide. UW Health says beds are not the issue when it comes to another surge.

Staff is certainly the thing that concerns me more than physical space,” said UW Health Chief Quality Officer Dr. Jeff Pothof. “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.”

“People are looking for other jobs,” Lee said. “This is just becoming too stressful on this unit…They’re burned out from the constant PPE- just seeing these patients so sick and having a really hard time.

Lee says the support she’s gotten from coworkers has kept her going. While she’s been able to remain positive, she’s unsure of the mental toll COVID-19 care will have on her and her coworkers in the years to come.

I think when we finally get out of this, I think a lot of us are going to have PTSD moments,” she said. “We’ll get a patient who doesn’t have COVID, they’ll come in struggling to breathe, and we’ll instantly go into that panic mode of what it was like during this COVID surge.”

It’s fair to say that it’s hard to do this job as a healthcare worker day in and day out for so long,” Dr. Pothof said.  “We’re all human beings too and we see what happens to folks. It’s hard not to  share in that suffering and share in that despair when you come in and see it so often. I do worry about our healthcare workforce here as well as nationally.”

Lee says nearly all of the patients she sees are unvaccinated.

“It’s so frustrating. I just don’t think that they truly understand. They can watch the news and see this all unfold, but it’s hard. If they only knew, I guess, what it truly is like just seeing this day to day and seeing patients get so sick. Maybe it would encourage them to get the vaccine, but I don’t know. Some people are just so set in their ways, it’s really unfortunate.”