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California's Fatigued Doctors And Nurses Are Bracing For Worse Coronavirus Surges

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here in the U.S., we're still waiting to learn when Americans will receive a vaccine for the coronavirus. In California, doctors and nurses are bracing for the worst while they themselves are particularly vulnerable since the numbers are so dire. More than 34,000 people in California tested positive for the coronavirus on Monday. Hospitalizations are at record highs, and COVID-19 has killed more than 100 people each day in California during the last week. From member station KQED, Lesley McClurg reports.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: The ER was near capacity when DeOnte Taylor ended a recent shift. He's a respiratory therapist at an Oakland hospital.

DEONTE TAYLOR: When I left, we had one trauma room that was open to run a trauma, and every other room was full.

MCCLURG: By the end of this week, he expects the surge to capsize his hospital.

TAYLOR: I think it's going to be chaotic. Only severe patients will be admitted and probably taken care of just because we can only keep the worst.

MCCLURG: Taylor says the problem isn't beds or even equipment like ventilators.

TAYLOR: We just don't have the staff to take on new patients.

MCCLURG: He says there's just not enough people, from janitors to pulmonologists. Some are at home taking care of their kids because schools are closed. Others are sick themselves. One staff member recently died of COVID-19.

Normally, a hospital like his would bring in staff from elsewhere, even from across the country. But because the pandemic is surging everywhere, hospitals are recruiting from the same small, exhausted pool of people.

DINORA CHINCHILLA: We're tired.

MCCLURG: Dr. Dinora Chinchilla works in critical care at a hospital in Orange County.

CHINCHILLA: There's only so many words you can use to describe the extreme fatigue.

MCCLURG: Watching the COVID numbers soar in recent weeks fills her with dread and nausea. She says she can't eat.

CHINCHILLA: Because this is real - you know, I've had patients who've told me that they don't believe that this exists until they've ended up in the hospital. Why have people lost faith in physicians?

MCCLURG: It's brutal taking care of so many patients who don't make it. More than 280,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. That weighs heavy on doctors and nurses who lose so many people.

Parimal Bharucha is a pulmonologist at Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Sacramento. He says months of pandemic care is leaving many health care providers traumatized.

PARIMAL BHARUCHA: It's like post-traumatic stress disorder that we all go through. It is a communal sense of grief.

MCCLURG: In the current surge, his hospital hasn't had to turn anyone away. But Bharucha says that could change overnight. He says his ICU is filled with sedated bodies kept alive by machines. The floor is strewn with masks and gowns. Nurses race between patients. He likens it to a war zone.

BHARUCHA: These patients can crash very quickly. Yesterday, I was on call for telemedicine, and I had three patients crash within five minutes of each other. At the same time, in another hospital, there were three patients who had cardiac arrest, one after one.

MCCLURG: There's often not time to honor his patient's dying requests. Bharucha remembers an older woman who hadn't seen her estranged son in decades. She finally called him, but the son couldn't visit his mother because of pandemic protocols.

BHARUCHA: This lady could not have the son at the bedside, and she treated me as a son and wanted me to hold her hands when she dies. And I could not live up to that.

MCCLURG: Right at the end, Bharucha was called away to treat someone else.

BHARUCHA: Somewhere in the back of my mind, it is haunting me, and I do not know how long it will haunt me. Yeah.

MCCLURG: Bharucha says, please stay home. Stop spreading the virus. That's what could help right now.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.