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California Health Care Workers Overwhelmed Amid COVID-19 Surge


Right now, another holiday surge of COVID-19 is crushing California's hospitals. Every day, the virus is killing an average of 360 people across the state. Doctors and nurses continue to push up against a breaking point. And as Lesley McClurg from member station KQED found, they're not only exhausted; they're feeling betrayed and angry.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: At her hospital in Orange County, Dr. Dinora Chinchilla says they don't have enough beds, so they've had to change the criteria for who qualifies for critical care. In other words, you have to be sicker to be admitted to the ICU now.

DINORA CHINCHILLA: All I see is sick, sick, sick, sick, sick and a lot of death.

MCCLURG: Recently, Chinchilla called me, crying on her drive home after losing so many patients in just a few days.

CHINCHILLA: I have never lost that many patients in a short period of time.

MCCLURG: Here's what she faces daily - ambulances lined up around the block, patients in large white pop-up tents, halls overflowing. Chinchilla tries to hold back tears when she gets home and her little kids run towards her after a long day.

CHINCHILLA: Because I don't want them to see me sad. They give me a big hug, and they say, Mommy, I'm a hero, too.

MCCLURG: Back in the spring, Chinchilla felt supported as a hero in her community. But now she feels betrayed.

CHINCHILLA: Every time I see people on social media, like, having parties or gatherings, I literally say, unfriend, unfriend, unfriend. I just can't take it anymore - the selfishness.

MCCLURG: Another doctor in Orange County recently urged folks to stay home over the holidays in an Instagram post. Dr. Victor Cisneros says it was met by an assault of profane pandemic denial. He likens that to denying a soldier's experience on the battlefield.

VICTOR CISNEROS: Where he's getting shot at and fired at, you know, in - maybe in Iraq and then people that are not there on the ground saying, this isn't real. You're not being shot at. This is fake.

MCCLURG: He's floored that people refuse to wear masks and continue to believe things that are untrue.

CISNEROS: But they think there's, like, microchips in the vaccines, or they think that there's, you know, really bad side effects. And so I think that's very demoralizing sometimes as a health care provider where you're doing everything - you're putting so much work. And then there's a stronghold on the other side increasing the spread.

DAWN HARRIS: I would say anger. I would say sadness.

MCCLURG: Dr. Dawn Harris is the chief of medicine at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, an overwhelmed facility in a small town northeast of Sacramento.

HARRIS: You spend a shift taking care of people in your own community. And then you leave, and you're seeing people protesting having to wear a mask. And you're thinking, OK, but if you get sick, I'm going to be here for you. And that's hard. That is the thing that hurts me the most inside.

MCCLURG: She knows she can't afford to catch the virus.

HARRIS: We don't have that many doctors. If I get sick, you lose me.

MCCLURG: These health care workers describe a glaring disconnect between the reality inside the hospital and how the general public is acting. Brittney Watson is an emergency room nurse in Oakland.

BRITTNEY WATSON: They don't see the people who are being rushed to the hospital who are like fishes out of water, who can't breathe.

MCCLURG: Watson remembers the first time she was alone with a patient who died of COVID-19. It makes her sad that under normal circumstances...

WATSON: There would be a whole family and group of friends that would be standing here, surrounding this person as they leave this world. And instead, they're left with me.

MCCLURG: A nurse covered in plastic from head to toe. Visitors aren't allowed inside most hospitals right now. The patient couldn't even see the care in Watson's face.

WATSON: They can only see this 2- to 3-inch window, my eyes and eyebrows. And that's the last person who's going to be with them.

MCCLURG: Currently, a tidal wave is toppling her hospital. Watson says it feels like the virus saturates every crevice.

WATSON: When I'm at work, it feels like the walls are coming in.

MCCLURG: The facility is in the midst of its second internal outbreak. Health care workers themselves are getting sick. Doctors like Dawn Harris at Sierra Nevada Hospital sincerely want these holiday surges to be the last. The vaccine offers a glimmer of light.

HARRIS: It's the first time that we've used the word hope.

MCCLURG: But the Christmas wave is just beginning to hit. A New Year's surge is still a few weeks away, and many cold months lie ahead before the vaccine slows the virus.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lesley McClurg