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COVID surge in New Hampshire overwhelms the state's hospitals

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Throughout the pandemic, states in New England have largely seen lower COVID case rates and fatalities than the rest of the country - that is, until now. In recent weeks, the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have surged across the region. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman takes us to an overwhelmed hospital in Manchester.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: The rooms inside the intensive care unit at Catholic Medical Center all have glass doors. That's so nurses can more easily keep an eye on patients. And on door after door after door, there's a red X made out of masking tape.

JENNIFER TOROSIAN: So these are all COVID patients.

BOOKMAN: Jennifer Torosian is the associate chief nursing officer here. She says the red x's are a visual reminder for staff that they should take extra precaution when they go inside.

The red x's are everywhere. COVID has surged in New Hampshire during the month of December. The National Guard has been activated, and FEMA has sent emergency teams to backstop overburdened hospitals.

BREE HEWARD: My name is Bree Heward (ph), and I'm a registered nurse.

BOOKMAN: What does it feel like inside here right now?

HEWARD: Chaos. Feels like a lot of energy all the time being utilized and a lot of worn-out people.

BOOKMAN: Heward says there was optimism here in Manchester over the summer, when hospitals emptied out and case rates were low.

HEWARD: As it started to climb up again, we were like, oh, maybe it's just a little spike. Well, it seems like this might not ever go away. This might just be the new norm.

BOOKMAN: According to the hospital, 70% of COVID patients are unvaccinated. It's 85% in the ICU. And they're skewing younger. Diane Kobrenski is the director of the intensive care unit.

DIANE KOBRENSKI: This gentleman was 50 that just came into the hospital on Wednesday on a regular floor - wasn't doing well, came down here and got intubated. You know, very, very sick, you know, with an unknown outcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR MOVING)

BOOKMAN: Down on the first floor in the emergency room, some patients have been sitting for three, four, five hours. Nurses, like Jessica Marchand (ph), are triaging people in the waiting area.

JESSICA MARCHAND: It's exhausting. It is truly exhausting. And it's the chronicity of it because it's not like where we make it through that shift, we make it through that wave. This is like a constant tsunami on a day-in and day-out basis.

BOOKMAN: She says for the first time, they're having to make decisions about who can get sent to the ICU and who needs to stay in the ER to wait for a bed to open up.

MARCHAND: And so when decisions like that are being made, there's - somebody is going to suffer at some point or another who aren't getting that same level of care. And it kills us as nurses because we went to school to do that. We are ingrained in our community. Like, we care about the people that we care for. And when you don't have the ability to provide that care, it kills you. It kills you in your 12-hour shift on your feet, and then it kills you the other 16 hours when you go home and you try to be present to your family.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sed one (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sed two (ph).

JOSEPH HOU: My name is Joseph Hou. I am a pulmonary critical care doctor.

BOOKMAN: Back upstairs in the ICU at Catholic Medical Center, Dr. Hou is about to do his rounds. Like the nurses, the nursing assistants, the janitors, the kitchen staff, Dr. Hou admits the intensity of the past few weeks is taking its toll.

HOU: I think the burnout is very real. I think every day, most of us have talked about burning out both emotionally and physically. I think the emotional part, especially kind of seeing the number of people who are not surviving, is getting even more challenging on a day-to-day basis. I do think that a lot of us are - you know, a lot of individuals have thought about leaving health care because of what's going on right now. There's certainly no doubt about it.

BOOKMAN: And that's the thought in the back of Dr. Hou's head as he gets up to go check on his patients, a walk around the ICU with red x's on nearly all the doors.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in New Hampshire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "INFINITES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.