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'You don’t necessarily feel heroic anymore': Health care workers facing burnout amid 4th COVID wave

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Posted at 5:27 AM, Aug 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-26 11:54:39-04

AURORA, Colo. — COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising to numbers not seen since January, and the ongoing demand for care is taking a toll on medical staff fighting to keep patients alive.

For more than 17 months, David Keller, a registered nurse, suits up to care for patients at UCHealth in Aurora. Caring for COVID-19 patients remains his most difficult task. There are currently 207 patients with COVID-19 hospitalized at UCHealth hospital system, more than triple than July.

"The overall feeling, I think at this point, is a sense of dread for what's to come and also a little bit of a sense of frustration because I do feel that this is preventable," Keller said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on the rise across the country since July, as the more contagious delta variant strain of the virus has risen to prominence. Nationwide, COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased 13% in the past week — a startling increase on top of already rapidly rising numbers.

"It's picking back up," Keller said. "We've seen our ICU at this facility go from being at pretty minimal capacity to being full."

Another disturbing trend: His cases now vary in age.

"I've seen people that are younger than I am who have no medical history that come in and end up on the ventilator," Keller said.

In a time when COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, he feels helpless.

"They are as sick as when we started all this off, if not sicker," Keller said.

The pandemic is taking a mental toll on nurses. Keller even considered leaving the medical field after dedicating six years of his life to caring for people.

"Nurse burnout is at an all-time high. We're seeing people leave the profession entirely just because of the strain that it's put on us," Keller said. "We want to help, we want to do our part in all of this, but at the same time, there is a breaking point, and I think we are kind of toeing the line."

He points to stress and trauma brought on during the pandemic.

"I've probably seen at least a dozen people pass," Keller said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, health care workers were hailed as heroes in Colorado and across the country as Americans emerged from their homes daily to cheer during shift changes.

"We all felt like we were fighting this good fight," Keller said.

But as the fight drags on by unvaccinated patients, Keller feels he's reaching a breaking point.

"You don't necessarily feel heroic anymore in your fight. It almost is like we've become kind of the workhorse," Keller said.

He's hopeful things will turn around, and more people will get vaccinated now that the FDA has granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine.

This story was originally published by Adi Guajardo on Scripps station KMGH in Denver.