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Opinion: My fellow nurses and I are swamped again because you won’t listen to science

The difference between this surge and the one last winter is the exasperation of knowing many patients would never have reached our hospital if they had just been vaccinated.

Nicki Roderman, St. Mark’s Hospital chief nursing officer, poses for a portrait at St. Mark’s Hospital in Millcreek on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Nicki Roderman, St. Mark’s Hospital chief nursing officer, poses for a portrait at St. Mark’s Hospital in Millcreek on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As a critical care nurse for the last 35 years, I have looked after the sickest of the sick in ICUs from Missouri to Texas to Utah. But I’ve never seen anything like COVID-19.

In particular, this latest surge brought on by the brutal delta variant is testing and stretching the health care system in ways I’ve never seen. As the chief nursing officer at St. Mark’s Hospital, I have the privilege of working with 500 remarkable nurses at a facility that has been caring for Utahns for 150 years.

They’re giving their hearts and souls to care for our community. They’re outstanding clinicians and even better human beings, going out of their way to support patients and communicate with their families, even when the outcomes are poor.

It’s time to honor their heroic efforts by uniting as a community and doing everything we can to fight this pandemic.

During last winter’s COVID-19 case surge, we saw several deaths per day. It was a challenging, emotionally taxing time, but we knew that if we could push past it, there was hope coming in the form of vaccines.

In many ways, we’re right back to where we were then. From full shifts in head-to-toe personal protective equipment, to breathing machines humming and hissing across our floors. From once again making hard choices about which non-COVID-19 related procedures we can perform, to family members crying on the floor outside the ICU, unable to go in and comfort their loved ones.

But the difference with this surge is the exasperation of knowing that many of those patients would have never reached our hospital if they had just done the thing I’m going to beg you to do:

Listen to the science.

If you get cancer and a doctor prescribes a course of chemotherapy, you trust that. You don’t say, “I need to know exactly what’s in it!” When you are diagnosed with diabetes, you trust the doctor’s prescription of insulin to regulate your blood sugar because you know that serious, capable professionals have studied it closely and found it to be an effective way to treat you.

Science has given us ways to eradicate smallpox, cure polio and protect ourselves against diphtheria, shingles and the common flu.

That same science has yielded vaccines that are proven to be safe and effective at fighting COVID-19. In particular, the vaccines currently available have shown to be extremely powerful at reducing the likelihood of serious illness, hospitalization and death due to the coronavirus.

Tens of thousands of people volunteered to test the safety of the vaccines last year, and since then, nearly 400 million vaccine doses have been administered in the United States alone. At this point there is a mountain of data telling us that these vaccines will prevent hospitalization and save lives.

They will not rearrange your DNA, enable government tracking, or do any of the other completely unfounded things you may have read about in places that are not informed by the science. In fact, the most serious side effect most vaccine recipients will experience is a sore arm. Across the eight MountainStar Healthcare hospitals in Utah, we have cared for thousands of very ill patients who chose not to receive the vaccine and then contracted the virus; so far, we have not treated a single patient who reached the hospital because of serious vaccine side effects.

I still remember walking into an ICU in Missouri as a relatively new nurse one morning in 1987 to the sound of my colleagues whispering nervously. As I approached them, I could finally make out the murmurs: “Who is going to take Room 4?” I asked what was going on, and they told me that a patient suffering from AIDS was in that room.

At that point, HIV and AIDS were just entering the public consciousness. We knew little about their severity or how the virus spread, so the thought of caring for that patient made us all feel a bit uneasy.

That wasn’t all that long ago, and yet today that anxiety is largely gone. Science gave people a way to live long, healthy lives after diagnosis, and care professionals now know how to treat patients safely and without fear. Similarly, today’s medical scientists have given us ways to reduce the anxiety and fear around COVID-19 and push back against the disease’s spread. As a community, though, we aren’t making the best use of them.

Nicki Roderman, St. Mark’s Hospital chief nursing officer, poses for a portrait on the roof of St. Mark’s Hospital in Millcreek on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Nicki Roderman, St. Mark’s Hospital chief nursing officer, poses for a portrait on the roof of St. Mark’s Hospital in Millcreek on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After the vaccines were introduced last year, we made steady progress at pushing back against the spread of the virus. At one point in the spring, we celebrated here at St. Mark’s when, for the first time in over a year, we had zero COVID-19 patients in our hospital. We high-fived and cheered; it felt like the pandemic was ending.

Now it’s back and even stronger. But it doesn’t have to be.

The delta variant is particularly aggressive, and it doesn’t care how old or young you are. We’ve treated 19-year-olds with severe COVID-19 pneumonia. A 27-year-old recently spent two weeks in our ICU.

Patients in their 30s and 40s will be talking and laughing one minute, and the next minute they’re coding while we perform an emergency intubation. People who should have had 50 years still in front of them are lying in a bed sedated and completely unable to breathe, all while their families struggle with the reality that they may never see their loved ones again.

We’ll keep fighting against this horrible disease. That goes for my amazing nurse colleagues and for so many others who are working hard on your behalf. Respiratory therapists, dietary staff, housekeepers, physicians — it would be impossible to list all of the professionals whose work has taken on new complexity and urgency in the face of this virus. All of us will keep fighting for you.

But please, I implore you: help us protect you by taking steps to protect yourself.

If you are eligible to receive the vaccine, do it. Don’t wait. There are numerous places along the Wasatch Front where you can receive the vaccine free and without a wait or an appointment. You can find more information about how to get your vaccine at coronavirus.utah.gov.

Follow other guidance from the CDC and your health care providers, such as wearing masks when appropriate, washing hands frequently and maintaining a safe distance from others.

Medical science has once again given us a way to safety. Let’s get there together.

Nicki Roderman is the chief nursing officer at St. Mark’s Hospital.