OKC health care workers feel optimistic
Sheila Seat remembers the relentless pace in the intensive care unit. When the pandemic was at its worst, it seemed like “every patient wasn't making it,” she said.
Now, about a year since the coronavirus was first detected in Oklahoma, health care workers are feeling a small reprieve as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have waned in recent weeks.
This week, hospitalizations across Oklahoma were at some of their lowest levels since the summer, down from a peak in January.
Seat, who began working at Integris Southwest Medical Center shortly after she graduated from OSU-OKC at the end of 2019, can feel the difference using her own somber metric. She’s had to make fewer calls to patients’ families lately to share grim news about their loved one, to let them know that day might be their last.
In interviews, six health care workers who’ve been on the front lines of treating COVID-19 patients in Oklahoma City described cautious optimism: the lessened burden on their hospitals is palpable, but they know their work against the coronavirus isn’t over.
“We still have patients that have been here for months,” Seat said.
For Jim Hull, a respiratory therapist at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City, work is always busy. But in the past two weeks, things have felt lighter — “you can just feel it around,” he said.
After Thanksgiving, Hull saw desperately sick patients one after another. One of the hardest things he’d do, over and over, was tell a patient it was time to go on a ventilator.
“Almost the entire shift, it felt like we just were just running and putting out fires,” he said. “But just the past couple of weeks, things just backed off so much. ... Just the fact that we're not having to use as many ventilators or as much high-flow oxygen systems, that itself gives you a lot of hope.”
Dr. Gregory McKinnis, the lead intensivist and medical director of the intensive care unit at SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital, said among his team, there’s a sense that this fight isn’t over.
“There is an easing right now, but I think there's been an easing every time that we've been at a low point,” McKinnis said. “But we’ve always sensed that when we feel relief and the numbers go down, that's when people relax and stop taking precautions, and then it kind of goes back up again.”
He said he worried that people will prematurely stop taking the precautions they’ve taken in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, but also that mutations of the virus could take hold.
“I think that's why we don't really know what the next three to six months holds for us,” he said. “Because it could just kind of fizzle out, which would be great. Or it could start another wave, and that's a concern.”
For Dr. David Chansolme, medical director of infection prevention at Integris Health, his team has felt the burden of COVID-19 hospitalizations lifted before, in the late summer and early fall of 2020, only to see an even worse wave in the winter.
“I hope that this time, we're really good,” he said. “It feels different.”
Chansolme said vaccinations are what’s giving him hope that an end could be in sight.
“As a facility and as an individual physician who runs a clinic, we are focused — laser-focused — on vaccination,” he said.
Education surrounding the vaccines is one of his top priorities.
“My biggest concern is getting everybody vaccinated,” Chansolme said. “I'm not here to try and talk anybody into a vaccine — there are plenty of people who want one. If you don't, just move out of the way, please. It's safe. I think there are very, very, very few people who do not qualify for it. We have to stop with the fear-mongering and stop with the misinformation. It's counterproductive.”
Krista Chiple, intensive care unit charge nurse at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City, said the COVID-19 vaccines have been a “bright light” after a trying year. When she got her own, it gave her some peace of mind inside and outside the hospital.
“I've had coworkers who have had COVID and you're seeing the patients and what they go through, and you just never know if you're going to be the one that gets the severe illness,” Chiple said. “It's all very scary when you get it, so I think [the vaccine] has definitely made me feel better.”
It also gives her hope to see more people in the community getting vaccinated, she said.
“I feel like Oklahoma has been receptive to the vaccine, and I hope that more people continue to get the vaccine,” she said. “Because I think it really has made a difference.”
Ginny Schiefer is the nurse manager on the first floor SSM Health St. Anthony Hospital converted into a COVID-only unit, which is still dedicated to that purpose. In recent weeks, she’s noticed small changes in the team of nurses as they’ve felt the burden easing.
“Their speech is coming easier. They seem more rested,” said Schiefer, who’s been with SSM Health for 16 years. “They seem more sure of themselves when they come to work. They are not as tense.”
There’s also been a change in the COVID-19 patients: they seem to be coming in less sick, Schiefer said.
Still, there’s always the fear that outside the hospital walls, people could return to normal life too quickly and send hospitals into crisis once again.
“It's always something that's in the back of your head,” Schiefer said. “Don't get too complacent or too calm too fast.
“It’s slowing down, but it's not over.”