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DENVER (KDVR) — Frontline health care workers, who were hailed as heroes at the start of the pandemic, are asking for help as COVID-19 hospitalization numbers continue to soar in Colorado.

Olivia Thornton is an associate nurse manager at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Thornton helped open the hospital’s first COVID-19 intensive care units in March 2020.

“I don’t think any of us knew exactly what to expect, but I didn’t think we’d be where we are today,” Thornton said.

This week, UCHealth’s COVID hospitalizations reached 350 — the highest point in 2021. According to state data, Colorado’s hospitalizations as a whole are also spiking. The state hit 1,191 confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations this week. That’s the most hospitalizations since Dec. 23, 2020.

“I think maybe there’s a lack of understanding of what we’re having to go through — of what some of our patients are having to go through and how sick these people can get,” Thornton said.

In Colorado, 77% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

“Some come in and they still don’t believe in the vaccine, and they stand by their decisions and we respect that. Then there’s others — they’re apologetic, they wish they had gotten it, they didn’t realize they would get this sick,” Thornton said.

The rise in patients is taking a toll on hospital staff. Thornton said some days, her nursing staff is stretched so thin, they may be on their feet for more than 12 hours without a lunch break.

“It’s not always that they can’t physically take the break, it’s really just that commitment that they have to providing care for these people,” Thornton said.

Thornton said the widespread encouragement health care workers saw to start the pandemic is fading. That type of support helps morale, but what they really need is higher vaccination rates.

“Please get vaccinated. Please put on a mask. Please make the right choices so that we can all get back to some sort of normal life out there,” Thornton said.