Shannon Calvert has a message for the public: get vaccinated.

“It works,” said Calvert, an intensive care nurse at Maine Medical Center who has been caring for COVID-19 patients.

“COVID is a real thing,” she said. “And for the people who are masking and vaccinated and doing the right thing, that’s great, but I also want to remind people that are vaccinated that you could still be a carrier, so please do your due diligence. Wear a mask when you are out in public and don’t get into huge gatherings.”

Calvert and other nurses and staff at Maine hospitals have been overwhelmed with the recent surge in COVID-19 patients. On Thursday, the state reported 624 new cases, the highest daily total since the pandemic peaked in January. The rising case numbers have brought increases in hospitalizations and have taken a toll on staff, who are urging members of the public to get vaccinated if they haven’t and to continue adhering to health and safety protocols.

Shawn Taylor, nurse manager for the COVID intensive care unit, COVID intermediate care and neurocritical care at Maine Med, said most new COVID admissions at the hospital are due to the delta variant and about 95 percent of the patients are unvaccinated.

The new cases have strained the hospital’s operations, especially as it continues to see and treat general admissions of non-COVID patients. “The staff are seeing higher-acuity (patients),” Taylor said. “They’re seeing more patients and as they continue to work through it that does take a toll on them. We really ask them to use their balance between work and life to try to find outlets and to be able to manage that.”

In the ICU, Taylor said staff are close-knit and have meetings either on Zoom or in the unit to discuss where they are in the midst of the pandemic. “I think the way we cope with it is just by keeping more information flowing and that seems to be a way to help them cope,” he said.

Shawn Taylor, a nurse manager in Maine Medical Center’s COVID ICU and COVID Intermediate Care, says that about 95 percent of the hospital’s new COVID admissions are unvaccinated. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Staff are under similar strains at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and MaineGeneral in Augusta. “I think they’re overwhelmed,” said Chris Laird, associate vice president of patient care services for critical care, respiratory and clinical education and a registered nurse at EMMC. “They’re tired. They’re working very hard and working extra overtime shifts to cover the patients we have. We’re very grateful for them still showing a huge amount of kindness and compassion for the patients.”

About two months ago the hospital was at the point of almost celebrating that they didn’t have any COVID-19 patients. “Shortly thereafter we went to three patients, then to six patients and then to 12 patients in the ICU,” Laird said. “It’s been a rapid increase over a quick period of time.”

TIRED AND SHORT-STAFFED

He said the hospital is working hard to support nurses and staff, but it can be difficult. “There are days we’re running short-staffed and days we have had managers and assistant nurse managers in caring for patients,” Laird said. “It is hard but we are supporting them and trying to do whatever we can.”

At MaineGeneral, Tabitha Daoust, a critical care nurse and professional development practitioner, has patients who are too sick to have visitors and have the nursing staff as their only support system. Others struggle with coming off oxygen to eat a few bites of a meal or can only speak sentences or a few words without getting out of breath.

“It’s sad because some of these patients are younger and at baseline healthier and so this is a big change for them,” Daoust said. “It’s unfortunate that I think a lot of people focus on death rates. My argument to that is always that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you. There are patients that have really long-term affects and really long-term recovery and yes, they survive, and we’re happy about that, but their quality of life has changed.

“We don’t know how long that impact on their quality of life will last. It’s hard to see. It’s hard and very emotionally taxing, not only for the patient and their family but also for the staff taking care of them.”

As a nurse, Daoust has encountered much misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines from patients, their families and the public. “It becomes very overwhelming because as a nurse you just don’t know how to attack that and how to help overcome that misinformation and those lies, particularly if someone doesn’t want to learn,” Daoust said.

Calvert, the nurse at Maine Med, also is frustrated and believes the current spike in cases could be flattened if more people got vaccinated. “We’re providing excellent care to these guys but we are tired,” she said. “It’s a little bit frustrating and the frustration doesn’t lie in the care we’re providing these patients. It’s frustrating because it feels like it’s preventable.”

Calvert is unable to talk to her ICU patients because they are on ventilators, but she often has discussions with their family members about some of the reasons they haven’t gotten vaccinated.

THIS COULD BE PREVENTED

“It runs from it’s too ‘political’ to COVID’s not a thing to the vaccine hasn’t been researched enough,” Calvert said. “Those are some of the things we hear people say and unfortunately there are people that no matter what you say to them it doesn’t seem to hit home, which is really hard for us when we’re taking care of their loved ones who are so sick they could potentially die and they’re still not believing that what we’re saying is true. It’s frustrating in a sad way because all this could be prevented.”

Daoust, the MaineGeneral nurse, encourages people to not only get vaccinated but also to follow other public health recommendations, including physical distancing, regular handwashing, masking indoors and staying home if they’re not feeling well.

“Even if you don’t think a mask works, what harm is it doing to you?” she said. “If you have that opportunity to potentially help someone else or potentially save someone else’s life by the simple act of putting a mask on your face when you’re in a building, it seems like a pretty simple thing you can do to show kindness to someone else and potentially protect them. We know it helps. Nothing is 100 percent effective, which is why we have to combine all these measures. … We will get through this but have to row that boat together.”

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