For Nurses, California's Virus Outbreak Has a Personal Toll

A doctor checks on COVID-19 patients in the ICU
APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

For Caroline Brandenburger, the coronavirus outbreak that has overwhelmed California hospitals comes with a very personal toll.

“Just today we had two deaths on this unit. And that’s pretty much the norm,” said Brandenburger, who works on the COVID-19 unit at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, south of Los Angeles. “I usually see one to two every shift. Super sad.”

“They fight every day, and they struggle to breathe every day even with tons of oxygen. And then you just see them die,” Brandenburger said. “They just die.”

California avoided surging cases for months, but now the virus is raging out of control. The state, which is the nation’s most populous with nearly 40 million residents, has seen more than 2.5 million confirmed infections. Only Arizona tops California in cases per resident.

A surge following Halloween and Thanksgiving produced record hospitalizations in California, and now the most seriously ill of those patients are dying in unprecedented numbers. State health authorities reported Friday 493 new deaths.

There have been more than 28,500 COVID-19 deaths in the state since the start of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations are nearing 22,000, and state models project the number could reach 30,000 by Feb 1. Already, many hospitals in Los Angeles and other hard-hit areas are struggling to keep up and warned they may need to ration care as intensive care beds dwindle.

Lawmakers and public health officials have repeatedly praised medical workers as heroes as they struggle to treat the infected. Many nurses already stretched thin are now caring for more patients than typically allowed under state law after the state began issuing waivers that allow hospitals to temporarily bypass a strict nurse-to-patient ratios law.

The nurses at St. Joseph Hospital illustrate the toll that comes with the work.

“This past week has been probably the hardest week for me physically and emotionally,” said Donna Rottschafer, a nurse in the COVID-19 unit. “I’ve been here 21 years, and I’ve seen more people pass away in the last week — in the past couple weeks really — than almost like combined in all of my career as a nurse.”

“We’re seeing patients who are maxed out on oxygen, who are basically just suffering,” she said.

To the north in Los Angeles County, figures released Thursday showed a new daily caseload of nearly 20,000, a 66.5% increase over the previous day, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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