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'Shifts are hard': COVID-19 pandemic takes a toll on York County's medical workers

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch
Frontline health worker Dr. Hardik Patel stands outside WellSpan York Hospital Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. He provides care to about 23 COVID-19 patients each day. Bill Kalina photo

Promptly at 8 a.m., Dr. Hardik Patel arrives at his job to triple wash his hands and arms and put on several layers of protective gear — including an N95 respirator, two face masks, a face shield, protective goggles, two pairs of gloves and a surgical gown.

It's all part of his daily responsibilities as a frontline health care worker at WellSpan York Hospital, where he provides care to roughly 23 COVID-19 patients each day.

"This is a whole different world," Patel said. "Mentally and physically, wearing layers of masks and gowns takes so much time and effort — and it is difficult to breathe, believe it or not." 

The strain of the COVID-19 pandemic is evident not only to parents, business owners and students — but to frontline workers who face these challenges directly, he said.

The negative mental health effects of the coronavirus will be "serious and long-lasting," according to a May study by the American Psychological Association. 

Betsy Snook, the CEO of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, said that while nurses and other medical professionals have handled the pressure that comes along with the job, it's become a burden on their mental health, too. 

"They're just simply tired, and for some people, that's equated to some leaving the profession," Snook said. 

She added that the nursing association has done its part to provide resources to nurses struggling with work, by bringing in a psychologist and trauma care specialist to speak with those whose mental health has taken a hit.

Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of medical practices have shut their doors, according to a July study reported by The New York Times.

In a survey of 3,500 doctors, about 8% reported closing their offices — which could equal roughly 16,000 practices, the article stated.

Additionally, the pool of available travel nurses is drying up as demand jumped 44% in December, The Associated Press reported.

Snook said that although Pennsylvania largely hasn't been struggling with retention and staffing issues, area hospitals are taking precautions by augmenting nursing staffs.

Earlier this month, UPMC deployed 200 new nurses to its health system, she said.

WellSpan and UPMC in York County have also stepped up their procedures to streamline their health care systems and hire new workers.

Frontline health worker Dr. Hardik Patel wears some of his personal protective equipment outside WellSpan York Hospital Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. He provides care to about 23 COVID-19 patients each day. Bill Kalina photo

Ryan Coyle, a spokesperson for WellSpan, said the main issue for the system in recent weeks has been staffing. It's been an issue at hospitals throughout the country, especially when a significant portion of staff is infected with the coronavirus.  

"With the sharp increase in hospitalizations related to COVID-19 in recent weeks, WellSpan is actively recruiting temporary staff," he said via email. 

Additionally, WellSpan has paused new elective procedures that would take up additional hospital beds.

UPMC has made similar changes, including the use of travel nurses — who are dispatched to facilities where they are needed — and increasing the use of telemedicine for patients who have conditions that are not life-threatening, said spokesperson Kendall Marcocci via email.

Dr. Daniel Hornyak, the medical director for the Emergency Department at UPMC Memorial Hospital in West Manchester Township, said it has been especially challenging for health care workers who are also parents — including himself — to juggle the duties of caring for patients and their own children.

"Shifts are long and shifts are hard," he said. "I was praying it was a seasonal thing — but those prayers went unanswered."

Seeing success stories of patients throughout the year motivated Patel to keep going, the WellSpan physician said.

He cited one particular case of a young patient who came in and immediately required attention in the intensive care unit. After a few days in ICU, the patient was transferred to Patel's unit. 

The patient could barely talk and required the maximum amount of oxygen to function. With help from several different staffing units, the patient was able to recover and beat coronavirus. 

"Even to this day he's been thanking me," Patel said. "I'll never forget that."

Hornyak commended the UPMC staff for coming together to make sacrifices in order to save lives.

"With cases increasing and patients still getting sick with non-COVID-related illnesses, there's a lot to do," he said. "Whether it's someone coming in with a heart attack ... a stroke, sepsis, or a COVID patient, it's the teamwork every single day that makes me want to go back to work the next day and do it all over again."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.