The coronavirus pandemic has exhausted medical professionals around the country, and Halifax County also is feeling the fallout of a mass exodus from health care jobs.
During times of crisis, fatigue is a normal human response. For some, COVID-19 has been a never-ending daily battle since late March when life as Americans knew it suddenly switched to a world of sickness.
It’s starting to take a toll on hospitals reporting staff shortages in Southside and across Virginia.
Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital employees have experienced those same shortages for a variety of reasons, spokesperson Joni Henderson told The Gazette.
“However, we have a strong team who continually pull together to provide quality health care to the patients we serve,” she explained.
Henderson did not provide a number of employees who have left this year.
However, over at nearby Sovah Health-Danville, 40 nurses have exited their jobs since the beginning of the year, Alan Larson, the hospital’s CEO, told Danville City Council last month.
The problems expand well beyond the people tasked with saving lives. Workers with the Virginia Department of Health are also feeling drained and leaving the public health profession.
“As you can imagine, our staff has been working hard for more than a year and a half on COVID while also juggling their normal duties,” explained Brookie Crawford, a spokesperson for the health department. “Everyone is doing the best they can.”
Dr. Scott Spillmann, director of the local health district, called his staff “COVID crispy” — explaining they aren’t quite burned out, “but starting to charr around the edges.”
Everyone is in need for rest and restoration, he said.
“COVID-19 has been exhausting for everyone,” Henderson said when asked if burnout was a problem at the Halifax County hospital.
“We continue to battle this virus while caring for our other patients as well,” she continued. “It has certainly been a challenging 19 months for our team, and we are proud of the resiliency and determination they display day after day.”
Like many health systems in the region, Halifax Regional has to occasionally go on what’s known as diversion. That means a facility no longer has the capacity to accept more patients. In general, this can be because all available beds are filled or there’s not enough staff to provide care.
“We do have to go on diversion occasionally, much like the other hospitals in our region, however we work diligently to coordinate with our partner hospitals and to provide quality health care to all of our patients regardless of our capacity levels,” Henderson said.
Sentara recently announced what it calls a “gift of appreciation” of up to $2,000 for employees enduring the ongoing struggles.
“Some of these challenges were reminiscent of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sentara Healthcare President and CEO Howard P. Kern told employees earlier this month. “New challenges presented us with the management of vaccinations, the delta variant of the virus and a resurgence of patient activity in our care facilities reacting to the limited services available in 2020.”
Sentara reported 98.5% of its employees are eligible for the financial bonus.
Beyond money, the hospital also provides spiritual and mental health support via its employee assistance program.
Community kindness also goes a long way to lifting the spirits of the wary workers.
“We encourage everyone that interacts with our staff, any local health district staff and anyone that has been working throughout this pandemic to remember patience and be kind,” Crawford said.
That interaction includes contact tracing. When someone tests positive for COVID-19, the health department is notified and launches an investigation. The goal is to let anyone who’s been around that individual know they’ve been exposed to the virus.
Sometimes residents are reluctant to provide information, making the job of contact tracers all the more difficult.
For Halifax Regional, support comes in many ways both big and small. The simple act of being patient with those working there or sending a note of appreciation helps to boost morale.
“We remain committed to doing all we can to care for our patients, community and team during this challenging time,” Henderson said.
However, the most “significant support” would be more people getting vaccinated, she said, thus “preventing the need to be in the hospital suffering the effects of the virus.”
As of Monday, the Halifax hospital was treating 15 COVID-19 patients, the highest since mid-September, and represents nearly 30% of all hospitalized patients.
However, statewide hospitalizations are down to an average of about 1,675 patients per day compared to more than 2,100 in late September, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association.
Experts at the University of Virginia believe the worse of the pandemic’s fourth wave — blamed on the highly transmissible delta variant — has passed, but cases remain elevated.
For the Southside Health District — an area that covers Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties — daily infection rates have plateaued, meaning there’s no up-or-down movement. To the west, Danville and Pittsylvania County caseloads are growing, the only locality in the state in that trajectory.
Southern Virginia stands apart from the rest of the state that’s mostly seeing a decline in COVID-19 cases.
Experts around the commonwealth continue a plea to residents who have yet to receive a vaccine to roll up their sleeve and get a shot of protection.
The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association has instituted a new campaign targeting the unvaccinated. It features a digital video aimed to reach people who are hesitant about taking the shot.
Data also is a big factor in the campaign. Since Jan. 17, the Virginia Department of Health reports only 0.4% of fully vaccinated Virginias have had a breakthrough case of COVID-19. Of those, 0.017% have been hospitalized and 0.0038% have died from the virus.
The figures represent evidence the vaccine performs as intended by keeping the overwhelming majority of those infected out of the hospital. Many breakthrough cases only have mild symptoms, experts have said.
“Increasing Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is a safe and effective way to help us move beyond the pandemic and return to some version of normalcy,” said CEO Sean T. Connaughton, president of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. “In addition to protecting yourself and the people around you, getting vaccinated is a way to honor the dedicated health care professionals across the Commonwealth who have bravely served on the frontlines of this pandemic for more than 18 months.”