Conditions were poor last fall at a northeastern Kentucky hospital during a Covid spike. They are worse now

“I’ve held the hands of people dying from Covid,” he said. “I had close friends who lost their lives, even at my age,” said Parker Banks, who is 35. “I had someone who was like a second mother to me, who lost her battle.”

There are “simply no words to describe what we are experiencing at the forefront of health care right now,” the doctor said.

As the Omicron variant continues to bombard the country, Kentucky hit a record positivity rate for Covid-19 this week: nearly one in three residents — 30.25% — who tested tested positive for the virus.

“The increase is significant, severe,” Gov. Andy Beshear said, with “72,165 new cases in one week, far more than any other surge we’ve seen.”

And the state’s health care workers are again bearing the brunt of the brutal outbreak.

In rural areas like Owingsville, Kentucky, where Parker Banks works, resources are stretched as health care workers themselves get sick.

“It definitely strains the system, on an already strained system,” Parker Banks said. “Right now we probably have a 40% reduction in staff currently, today, due to exposure to Covid or Covid. With that, everyone here has to pick up a significant amount.”

And even though the Omicron variant overall causes less severe disease than Delta before it, the overwhelming number of people infected has again led to full intensive care units.

“It seems that because Omicron in general seems to be a milder disease compared to Delta, we still have a lot of hospitalizations because a lot of people are affected just by the numbers,” said Dr. Steve Koenig, Medical Director . of the Pulmonary Division of St. Claire Regional Medical Center.

Koenig said he thinks fewer people need ventilators now than during the Delta surge. Yet for many frontline healthcare workers, little has changed. They still see a lot of very sick people.

“It’s rare to have an open bed,” said Phelan Bailey, administrative manager of the emergency/critical care department at St. Claire HealthCare in Morehead. Patients wait about 12 to 20 hours for a bed, and a few weeks ago “we had patients who were there (in the ER) for 24 hours or more,” Bailey said.

The Morehead facility was so overwhelmed in September that the National Guard was called in for help. The difference between now and then, Bailey said, is that “we’ve had a lot of nurses who have left the facility, left health care in general, just because of the tremendous stress that the acuteness of the patient imposed on them”.

“We’ve had several who have either taken some kind of time off or just left the workforce due to stress,” he said.

Checking in with staff members, “they’ll tell us, you know, I’m at my breaking point. It’s just too much. I’m seeing too much illness, too much death,” Bailey said.

Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people account for nearly 80% of these cases, nearly 85% of hospitalizations and more than 83% of deaths.

This fact adds to the pressure on staff members, who know that the serious illness and death could have been avoided.

“When we’re filling beds for what I feel is something that could mostly be prevented with vaccines and masks, it’s very hard to keep seeing nurses keep pulling that load over and over every day,” said Charlotte Kinney, nurse manager at St. Claire Regional Medical Center.

“My biggest fear right now is not managing the disease,” said Donald Lloyd, CEO of St. Claire. “It keeps our clinicians and our nurses and our therapists and all the teams resilient, they’re burnt out and they feel frustrated.”

“To some extent they feel disenfranchised because, you know, they’ve been pleading and pleading with people to wear masks, to get vaccinated, and that message just hasn’t resonated as effectively as we wanted to,” Lloyd said.

A Covid-19 patient in St. Claire is among those not fully vaccinated. Sharry Conn, 80, received one shot but fell ill before she could get the second, she said. Conn, who has diabetes and asthma, credits the shot with keeping her from getting even sicker.

“The way I can understand, I didn’t get it wrong, like some people, because some people won’t take pictures like that,” Conn said.

Now, she says, once freed, she will get that second hit.

CNN’s Miguel Marquez and Aaron Cooper reported from Morehead, and Theresa Waldrop wrote from Atlanta.

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