A year ago, as Iowa hit the first anniversary of dealing with COVID-19, healthcare workers had a plea: use self-protection, like masks and social distancing, to keep the highly contagious coronavirus from spreading.

Hospital beds were full and the ability to respond to the pandemic was hampered by overwork and healthcare workers, themselves, getting sick.

“Certain days are harder than others. You know, it kind of depends on what’s going on,” Lilly Olson, a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics floor nurse, said talking with IowaWatch in January 2021 as Iowans moved into year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was one of several healthcare workers with whom IowaWatch spoke last winter during a report called Voices of COVID.

The pleas for help already were aging.

“Do you get a sense that the general public has an understanding of what it’s like for the patients and the healthcare workers on the floor?” IowaWatch asked.

Olson replied, “Unfortunately, I don’t. I wish they did. Even some of the nurses in our hospitals still aren’t quite fully grasping. I mean, they understand COVID is serious, but they don’t understand how serious until they’ve floated to us.”

Now, as Iowa heads into year three, the message hasn’t changed.

“The nurses are seeing death rates higher than they have, traditionally, in their careers,” Jennifer Nutt, vice president for nursing and clinical services at the Iowa Hospital Association, said. Speaking with IowaWatch in January she still had the message – almost a full year after last year’s interviews: urging Iowans to take steps that protect them from COVID-19.

“I know they’ve been hearing it for a long time,” she went on to say.

More than 900 patients with COVID-19 as a primary or secondary diagnosis were in Iowa hospital beds in January’s last days, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported. The count had been more than 1,000 earlier in the month.

To compare, fewer than 60 were hospitalized last June.

READ MORE: Burnout deepens for Iowa healthcare workers with latest COVID surge

Iowa Hospital Association

Jennifer Nutt, vice president for nursing and clinical services, Iowa Hospital Association Credit: Iowa Hospital Association

Nutt reminded people as IowaWatch spoke with her that it’s the regular flu season, too. At the hospitals, meanwhile, patient loads at intensive care units are high, as is the need for ventilators.

“Yeah, I think the plea for the public is for everyone that can get vaccinated, that they do get vaccinated as well as getting their booster vaccine – the booster vaccine is showing in the data that it is helping with the current variant – as well, when you need medical care. Get the appropriate level of care.”

Iowans have experienced initial fears and confusion about COVID-19, holiday restraints and a summer 2021 drop in infections and hospitalizations. Death has remained, although the daily rate is lower than it was at the end of 2020.

Iowans have seen the renewed growth in infections through variants that have made delta and omicron part of everyday talk; but also have more knowledge about the coronavirus.

Nutt spoke with IowaWatch for a story about the stamina needed to make the same pleas about COVID-19 protection over and over for two years and hope for results. In that story, IowaWatch reported that healthcare workers and administrators are weary in 2022, thinking that the time they’ve spent warning people about COVID-19’s effect on hospital workers has yielded little to help relieve the pressure.

“We hear the public complain about long wait times, or they can’t visit their family member, or all these other things that are going on in hospitals. It really is that the public needs to remember: health care workers are doing the best they can with the information they know. And, we understand it’s frustrating for the general public, but to just show compassion to our health care workers,” Nutt said.

Despite COVID-19 information fatigue, healthcare workers want people to keep hearing it. Here’s University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics chief executive Suresh Gunasekaran at a Jan. 13 news conference, just before announcing he was leaving that position for a job in California:

“If it were up to our healthcare workers, they’d like us to be calling you on a daily and weekly basis, because it’s really difficult for healthcare workers to be under this much strain, to be at this workload for what they perceive to be preventable illness, and that there are solutions,” he said.

“I’ve said multiple times that his pandemic is a very difficult marathon. And, right now, it’s a really tough leg of the marathon. We are tired. We have a lot of staff out on any given day, which is increasing workload to other healthcare workers that are here.”

Healthcare workers IowaWatch has talked with were careful not to get overly critical of specific political groups. But, politics exist. The anti-mandate, conservative political group, Iowans4Freedom, rallied at the state capitol in Des Moines on Jan. 10, the first day of the Iowa Legislature’s 2022 session. They called on the Legislature to prohibit by law any mandate for masks or vaccines as a work requirement in Iowa.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds says often she is against mandating that people where masks or get vaccinated, although she has been vaccinated. She touched on the strain of nursing shortages in Iowa during her annual Condition of the State Address on Jan. 11 but tied her comments to a long-standing problem with shortages that others in healthcare agree, exist, and training programs that can start as early as in high school. Reynolds did not mention COVID-19’s impact.

“In Pella, the high school Career Academy recently launched a patient-care registered apprenticeship program that offers students hands-on experience in a variety of medical settings, while at the same time earning a wage. 

“Before they even leave high school, these students can become a CNA (certified nursing assistant), and then qualify to work as a lab or surgical technician. And within a few short years, they can go on to become an OB tech, RN or BSN — all while being paid. 

“This innovative approach, and the public-private partnerships that make it possible, are what Iowa’s education and healthcare systems need. That’s why we’re launching a new healthcare registered apprenticeship program that will provide funding to at least five communities to scale what Pella has done.”

Nutt said the nursing profession has struggled with shortages as nurses burn out or seek other lines of work and lifestyles. She said the political rhetoric isn’t helping:

“Healthcare providers do have some frustration with how politicized this pandemic has become. There are thoughts that, if it was not as politicized, and it was like any other disease that came out, and ‘here’s a vaccine,’ if it works, there would not be the back and forth and political arguments about vaccines, if they’re good or bad. The healthcare providers would like people to follow science, and not what politicians or political scientists are saying around the pandemic.”

There was guarded optimism a year ago among many healthcare professionals that reporting how badly COVID-19 harmed its sickest victims, and how much stress dealing with the coronavirus had on the healthcare system would have an impact on people’s behavior.

A year later, the testimonies continue. So do the questions: When will things slow down at hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices? When can people stop wearing masks? When can life return to normal?

When will this be over?

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