Colorado healthcare workers battle ‘compassion fatigue’ as COVID hospitalizations spike


HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. (KDVR) — It has been nearly 18 months since the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Colorado.

Yet despite the widespread availability of multiple vaccines, COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to climb, with nearly 800 now people hospitalized in Colorado with confirmed COVID-19.

The overwhelming majority of those hospitalizations, here and across the country, are in unvaccinated people.

‘We are just exhausted’

“You’re going up to face an enemy — this COVID — with folks who have made the conscious decision, for the most part, to not protect themselves with the vaccine,” Dr. Ben Usatch said.

Usatch is the medical director for the emergency department at UCHealth Highlands Ranch, where something called “compassion fatigue” is starting to set in.

“I’m tired, my staff is tired, my docs, my nurses, my techs, the people that clean the rooms we are just exhausted,” he said.

Betsy Burdette, registered nurse house supervisor, said the physical and emotional toll of caring for COVID patients has led to burnout among staff — stress that’s only increasing with current hospitalizations.

“Emotions are high with these sad stories that are coming in, again,” she said. “We’re seeing the same situations, the same things, only this time they’re preventable. And now it’s really hard to say we are so sorry you’re here, and we really wish you weren’t.”

‘They look at you with tears in their eyes and say: can I get the vaccine now?’

UCHealth doesn’t release vaccine statuses, but across town at Denver Health, 19 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

Of that number, 17 of them are unvaccinated, along with one partially vaccinated and one unknown.

“There’s nothing more heartbreaking than sitting with a patient knowing fully well they’re heading to the ICU with COVID, and they look at you with tears in their eyes and say can I get the vaccine now?” he said. “And the answer is, unfortunately, it’s too late.”

Dr. Elizabeth Harry is the senior medical director of well-being at UCHealth and said they have gone to great lengths to try and limit compassion fatigue by encouraging staff members to talk about it.

“The most important thing is to acknowledge it and have an honest dialogue that it’s happening,” she said. “These are really compassionate people, and it is hard to watch suffering.”

Harry said they have held debriefing sessions and focus groups while providing additional therapy with extended hours.

The hospital is also providing free food to staff members on the weekends to try and limit stress at home.

“We have a workforce that gives so much of themselves, and they will give of themselves past maybe where they should,” Harry said, “and we want to make sure we give them as many resources as we can to help themselves as they’re caring for these patients.”

Burdette said at the end of the day, healthcare workers have a duty and an obligation to provide quality care, regardless of vaccination status.

“No matter what they’re here for, no matter the diagnosis, we are going to treat them the exact same way whenever we step into the room,” she said. “Our commitment to our patients is never going to change. Whether you come in vaccinated, or unvaccinated, you are going to get treated the same.”

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