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COVID-19: New Brunswick nurse details life and death on front lines

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WATCH: As New Brunswick’s COVID-19 hospitalizations climb ever higher, one registered nurse is giving an inside look at life and death in the province’s hospitals. Travis Fortnum has the story – Jan 16, 2022

Amid all-time high COVID-19 hospitalizations and staggering staffing shortages, a registered nurse at the Saint John Regional Hospital is describing the fight on the front lines of the pandemic.

She’s not holding back, so to spare any repercussions, Global News has agreed not to use her real name. We’ll call her Britney.

“It’s usually chaos,” she says of the situation at the hospital.

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“We are full to the brim. We have people in beds in rooms that we never thought we would make patient rooms.”

She says she and her coworkers – who already work 12-hour shifts normally – are often working 16- and even 24-hour shifts.

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“We have nurses who are exhausted and you can tell as soon as you walk into the unit – they’re so excited that you’re here to relieve them,” she says.

She says it feels like what she imagines it would be like in “war times.”

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New Brunswick hospitals were down 369 health-care workers at last update Thursday.

With more than 100 COVID-19 patients in hospital beds and as many as 220 hospitalizations forecast by early February, Britney says the status quo is unsustainable.

“We have units that are shut down from outbreaks,” she says.

“We have delayed surgeries because there’s no intensive care unit nurse to receive these patients. Sometimes there’s a bed, but there’s no nurse for that bed.”

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Read more: Some nurses lack proper PPE amid Omicron COVID-19 surge, union says

The nurse says the more COVID-positive patients there are, the more she and her coworkers are sent to the COVID unit.

“We have to kind of think in triage,” she says.

“Is this person’s gallbladder as important as, you know, the guy that needs to be flipped in the COVID unit? Is there an intensive care unit nurse for the cardiac surgery or is there an intensive care unit nurse for the COVID unit?”

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Working while sick

Officials have previously confirmed there are circumstances in New Brunswick where a COVID-19-positive nurse may still be asked to show up for a shift – and Britney says it happens more than you might think.

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“They’ll put you with COVID-positive patients. However, you are COVID-positive and you’re working.”

“Eventually it’s going to be we’re going to be in the room with these patients and we’re going to be expected to empty their catheters and do their blood pressures.”

Read more: Nurses working during COVID-19 pandemic ‘beyond the point of burnout’

She says the field is following New Brunswick’s recently revised five-day isolation period – a move made out of necessity, despite the risk, the chief medical officer of health has said.

“For most of the pandemic,” Dr. Jennifer Russell said Dec. 31, “our goal has been to contain the virus. With the presence of Omicron, that is no longer possible.”

Registered nurses and other health-care professionals in the province have received three doses of Health Canada approved COVID-19 vaccines – experts say that limits transmission.

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Having treated patients at various stages of vaccination – from thrice dosed to unvaccinated – Britney says the benefits are undeniable.

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“I will tell you that the unvaccinated are our sickest folks … They’re the folks that need the ventilator.”

“A lot of folks who aren’t vaccinated, who get very sick… they’re asking us, ‘please, will you give me the vaccine?’ And unfortunately, at that point, it’s too late,” says the nurse.

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While some people have started tuning out daily case counts and vaccination rates at this point in the pandemic, it’s hard to ignore when New Brunswick’s count of COVID-19-related deaths rises.

For Britney, each death is more than a statistic. She says she’s witnessed the fear patients experience, and she’s had to make the call to Public Health to report their death.

“It might just be a number but it’s someone’s family member. That’s somebody.”

In-hospital deaths, in COVID times, happen without family members present in most cases.

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“I think that’s one of the hardest parts for us,” she says, “watching these folks who are scared and dying alone.”

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“When you think of people dying, you think of that beautiful moment where everybody who loves them is loving on them and everybody that they love is there to say their last words and things like that.

“And it’s not happening now.”

She says those moments will stick with her and her coworkers forever.

Read more: COVID-19 death toll more than just numbers on a spreadsheet: ‘They’re your friends, your family’

Yet the fight goes on.

“This sounds morbid, but you put a person in a bag and then you get the next admission into that bed.

“You have to put a smile on and move on with your day,” says the nurse.

Her advice? Follow public health guidelines – lest you wind up one of her patients.

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